High-speed rail could whisk passengers between Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C., in a little over two hours, but it would cost billions of dollars to build, a new study shows.
A line between the two Southeastern cities could create jobs, reduce air pollution and improve mobility for millions of passengers a year, the study found. But it would cost up to $15.4 billion to build — and no specific funding or construction timetable have been identified.
Still, the draft study released recently by the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration is a milestone for the project. And the agencies are seeking public feedback, with a hearing set for Tuesday night in Atlanta.
“High-speed rail” travels at 90 to 150 mph or more. China, Japan, France, Germany and other countries have such service. The closest the United States has to that is Amtrak’s Acela service in the Northeast, which reaches 150 mph for brief stretches.
Under the Obama administration the FRA began studying numerous corridors across the country — including one in the Southeast between Atlanta and Washington.
The FRA and GDOT have completed a draft environmental impact statement on the 280-mile Atlanta-to-Charlotte segment. The agencies studied three routes:
- The “Southern Crescent” route follows the Norfolk Southern railroad right of way north of I-85. It would have six stations in Georgia: Toccoa, Gainesville, Suwanee, Doraville, downtown Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. In South Carolina, it would run through Spartanburg and Greenville on the way to Charlotte.
- The I-85 corridor, which would follow the interstate, with stops in Suwanee, Doraville, downtown and the airport.
- The “Greenfield” corridor south of I-85, with stops in Athens, Suwanee, Doraville, downtown and the airport. It would run through Anderson, S.C., on its way to Charlotte.
Cost estimates, travel times and projected ridership vary substantially, with the Greenfield corridor offering the fastest travel times and the highest passenger volumes, the analysis found.
Trains along that route could travel between Atlanta and Charlotte in as little as two hours and six minutes or as much as two hours and 44 minutes. It would serve up to 6.3 million passengers a year by 2050.
The Greenfield route would cost $6.2 billion to $8.4 billion to build — about midway between the cost estimates for the other routes.
The Southern Crescent route would be much cheaper at up to $2.3 billion, but it would also serve far fewer passengers (up to 1.2 million annually) and take far longer to travel (up to 5 1/2 half hours).
The I-85 line would cost up to $15.4 billion, serve up to 5.6 million passengers and take up to two hours and 50 minutes to travel.
Advocates say high-speed rail could be an economic boon to the region.
“We have long supported expanding transportation options, including high-speed passenger rail, to Charlotte and other cities in our megaregion and beyond,” said Dave Williams, the vice president of infrastructure and government affairs at the Metro Atlanta Chamber. “Improving connections with our regional partners will help grow our economy, create jobs and boost our global competitiveness.”
Kyle Wingfield, the president of the fiscally conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation, wondered whether high-speed rail would be a better option than driving or flying — especially given changes in technology that could mean more autonomous vehicles by the time a rail line is completed.
“High-speed rail was great in the middle of the 20th century,” Wingfield said. “But will it still make sense in the middle of this century, which is what we’re talking about?”
Funding would be a major challenge. Though President Barack Obama made a big push for high-speed rail when he was in office, President Donald Trump has been skeptical. His administration has tried to revoke more than $900 million in federal funding for a California line beset by cost overruns.
Following public comment on the draft study, GDOT will prepare a final study and select a preferred corridor for the Atlanta-to-Charlotte line. But a more detailed analysis — including specific route alignments, stations and other facilities — would await further funding.
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