Transportation: Jobs, growth riding on high-speed rail

That longtime preference puts us at considerable economic risk as a movement toward improved, faster intercity passenger train service in the U.S. gains speed. It’s backed by an $8 billion down payment of federal money.

As the Obama administration handed out rail grants last month, Georgia was all but cut out, receiving just $750,000 for yet more studies, not construction. If we remain stubbornly on this sidetrack, Georgia may find itself in a similar position to the stagecoach operators left behind on dusty roads a century ago as railroads grew, their expansion backed by both private and public investment.

States from Florida to California are starting work on raising passenger train top speeds from today’s standard of 79 mph to a planned maximum of 168 mph on a route between Tampa and Orlando. Other states will more modestly boost speeds to 90 mph, or 110 mph.

The states that won big have had solid plans in place for awhile and have already been spending money on incremental improvements. North Carolina Secretary of Transportation Gene Conti told Trains magazine that, “over the last 15 years, using a little federal money here, and a little state money there, we’ve put together something we’re proud of.”

North Carolina’s step-by-step approach landed it $520 million in federal money last month. That will pay for cutting trip times by more than an hour on the Charlotte-Greensboro-Raleigh line.

More importantly, North Carolina’s coup will move it closer to full participation in a planned high-speed rail link that begins in Boston and wends its way south through New York City and Washington, ending for now in Charlotte, not Atlanta. Passenger rail is sneered at by conservatives, but this is a traveling nation. Atlanta’s bleeding-edge investment long ago in what became the world’s busiest airport proves that thesis. Faster, more frequent train service may well prove its worth in reducing congestion that causes trucks and minivans alike to waste time and fuel grinding through traffic snarls.

Trains will also look more attractive when Middle East upheaval again causes fuel prices to jerk upward. And linking regions together in a new way may well make the Southeast more competitive in gaining new jobs and industry.

Or, if we don’t act, it will give other regions an economic edge over us.

Catherine Ross, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development, spoke last week of the transformational economic potential of regional rail networks. With Florida and North Carolina moving ahead, she said Atlanta can ill afford to become a “hole in the doughnut.”

“The world’s moving forward on this,” she said. Meanwhile, Georgia seems content to cling to the present, paving roads as we go. In its plans, the state’s given a long-term nod of sorts to passenger rail, but our competitors have already roared past us in planning and funding.

Yes, we’re in terrible fiscal times and, for now, there’s little or no money available in Georgia to leverage federal investment, even if state leaders really wanted to do so. Truth be told, only Washington can make right now the kind of mega-dollar infrastructure investments that will speed up rail service. And we’re missing out on that money.

Which is sad, given that Georgians are already paying their share of that deficit-fueled bill — and will do so for decades to come. We’re, in effect, subsidizing competing states that have their “act together,” as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has bluntly put it more than once. Georgia must be smarter than that.

Bold innovators usually carry the day in America. That describes the people and entities that understand the future before the pack, and place wagers early on toward their vision. That kind of thinking has defined Atlanta for more than a century. It’s defined Georgia, too, as the state once paid today’s equivalent of more than $100 million to build a rail line from Atlanta to Chattanooga 150 years ago.

In terms of fueling economic development, high-speed regional rail has the potential to become the new Hartsfield-Jackson airport or the next iteration of the interstate highway system. As that happens, Georgia can’t afford to become the Route 66 of the coming age.

Andre Jackson, for The Editorial Board.

Atlanta Forward: In coming weeks and months, we will look at major issues Atlanta must address in order to move forward as the economy recovers. Look for the designation “Atlanta Forward,” which will identify these discussions.

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