Georgia View: High-Speed Fantasy

It was 1975 and our futuristic electric monorail was weaving through the treetops in central Florida, enroute to the Magic Kingdom. I’ll never forget that wonderful first ride on the Disney Monorail. That said, high-speed rail for Georgia and much of our nation remains as much a fantasy as it was 36 years ago.

Down the tracks in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott is on the verge of returning potentially billions in federal stimulus funds that were to be used to develop a dedicated high-speed commuter rail line between Orlando and Tampa.

Governors in Ohio and Wisconsin are making similar refunds, out of concern for the open-ended budget and debt obligations these projects might create for their states.

President Barack Obama is seeking $53 billion for high-speed rail development over the next decade, while the GOP leadership in Congress is de-funding the current Amtrak budget by more than 14 percent and almost $1 billion, taking federal spending back down to 2008 levels.

The Acela Express, Amtrak’s existing high-speed train, travels at speeds of up to 150 miles per hour in Rhode Island and Maine on single-use dedicated track and rail bed, and much slower on the congested freight and passenger rail lines connecting the major population centers of the northeast. I've ridden the Acela on several occasions between New York and Boston, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. It usually cuts travel time by a third. However, Acela travel also comes at a premium price of 33 to 50 percent more than regular Amtrak service to the same destinations.

Many of our neighboring states “get” the benefits of passenger rail and are investing accordingly. While passenger rail service in Georgia is largely restricted to small stations in Atlanta, Gainesville, Toccoa and Savannah, rail service in North Carolina, Mississippi and Florida is significantly expanding.

We remain decades behind China and much of Europe in the expansion and development of high-speed rail corridors. In Europe, the euro and regional economies blended well with significantly more compact geographies. Yet projects such as The Chunnel, which connects the United Kingdom and France, still have significantly lower passenger volumes and revenues than were projected and remain subsidized by their respective governments.

In China, high-speed rail is connecting major coastal population centers with the vast and undeveloped wilderness of the mainland, accomplished by a government that owns the rail and most of the economy and has no concern for private property rights, even if that means the relocation of entire villages.

While Democrats controlled Congress and the White House, Amtrak received a boon of $8 billion largely towards infrastructure investments and new rolling stock. Much of that is as yet unreleased or expended. The northeast corridor, which carries the bulk of Amtrak traffic, could justifiably consume all of that to bring old rail stock up to par.

The rail barons of their day gave us transcontinental rail service as well as the majority of rail infrastructure that crisscrosses our nation today. Atlanta was born as Terminus, the hub of multiple private rail lines. States interested in expanding rail options may need to look to the private sector as well as their own bonding authority, instead of the federal community chest in the near term.

In Georgia, Amtrak travels almost entirely on freight lines that it leases from carriers like CSX and Norfolk Southern. Converting those existing lines for high-speed traffic would be practically impossible, and just acquiring new rail corridor between Atlanta and Chattanooga would cost billions. We have not yet even been able to agree on a site or design for the multi-modal transit station to handle that increased rail traffic in our state’s capital city.

President Obama’s ambitious goal is to have high-speed train access for 80 percent of Americans in 25 years. It took substantially longer than that to complete the U.S. interstate highway system, when costs were much lower and land acquisition was significantly less challenging. It may be a safer bet for him to invest $500 million in deepening the Port of Savannah to bring about significant improvements in transportation operations.

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