Consultants deem high-speed rail to Atlanta economically feasible

mowen@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 8, 2014 

A high speed rail line between Columbus and Atlanta would cost between $1.3-$3.9 billion over the next 20 years to build, but once up and running would more than pay for its operations and maintenance, a consultant said today.

It could also have a huge economic impact, according to Kirsten Berry, project manager consulting firm HNTB Corp., which performed the $350,000 study of the economic feasibility study of high speed rail between Columbus and Atlanta. The study was funded with a $300,000 Georgia Department of Transportation grant and the rest in private donations, according to city Director of Planning Rick Jones.

Berry presented a preliminary report Wednesday morning to members of the city Passenger Rail Commission and stakeholders in this community and other communities along the proposed routes.

Plans are to have one stop between Columbus and Atlanta, and Newnan appears to be the early favorite, but LaGrange is also in the running, considering its proximity to the Kia plant.

The consultants studied five potential routes between Columbus and Atlanta and settled on two final alternatives. One would use existing and abandoned rail beds and go through downtown LaGrange along the way. The other would follow Interstates 185 and 85 on existing state-owned right of way.

Three rail alternatives were presented, Emerging, Regional and Express. The Emerging trains would be powered by diesel engines and would follow the route through LaGrange at speeds of 79-110 mph and would take about a little over an hour and a half to complete the 101-mile trip.

The Emerging train system would be the cheapest alternative, costing a projected $1.3 billion, but was not projected to attract enough business to cover its operating and maintenance costs once up and running. The projected cost of a one-way ticket is $33.50.

The Regional trains would also be diesel, but would follow the 91-mile Interstate route at 110-150 mph, taking about an hour and 25 minutes.

The Regional train system would cost about $2.2 billion and would be expected to generate more than enough revenue to cover operation and maintenance. The projected cost of a one-way ticket is $41.42.

The Express trains would be high-speed electric, capable of speeds of 150-220 mph along the Interstate route, making the trip in about an hour flat.

The Express train system would be the costliest at $3.9 billion, but would also be expected to generate the most income, eventually producing 1.5 times its operations and maintenance costs. The projected cost of a one-way ticket is also $41.42.

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson established a Passenger Rail Commission in late 2011 made up of community leaders from the public and private sectors. Attorney Edward Hudson and State Rep. Calvin Smyre are co-chairs of the commission.

Money was secured for the consultant’s fee and the first steps were taken to determine the feasibility of the idea. One of the most encouraging things about the consultant’s findings is the projected economic impact on the areas involved in the rail system.

The report said that, based on what has happened with similar rail lines in other cities, stakeholders can expect to see 11,000 to 28,000 new jobs per $1 billion invested. Tomlinson said the impact locally would be akin to four Kia plants.

Tomlinson alluded to recent budget cutting negotiations going on with Columbus Council and said the rail line represents an opportunity to bring growth to the city’s tax base with a project that would not cost the city much if anything.

“This is a chance to grow the pie, and without dipping into the general fund,” Tomlinson said.

With the economic feasibility study done and with possible routes and technologies determined, the next step will be to commission two levels of environment impact study, which would take place over the next 10 years or so, according to Berry’s presentation.

Over the eight or so following years, preliminary and final design plans would be done and right of way would be acquired.

Finally, in the final few years of the 20-year plan, the rail system would be built.

Immediately, the commission must make sure the Columbus to Atlanta route is included in the state DOT rail plan and continue to identify potential funding for the next phase, Berry said.

“There are a lot of different funding programs,” Berry said. “Historically, these have been funded by federal funding, federal grants and loans.”

Berry said there are federal bonds that can be applied and the state DOT issues bonds. Also at the state level is the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority, which is currently defunct, but could be brought back by gubernatorial appointments. It has the authority not only to issue bonds but to create public-private partnerships, which have been used in similar projects elsewhere.

“It’s safe to say that in order to fund a large infrastructure project like this, it will take a patchwork of funding and financing,” Berry said.

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