A high-speed passenger rail line between Columbus and Atlanta may be feasible, but an environmental assessment is needed before plans can move forward, a representative with a consulting firm said Tuesday.
Charlotte Weber of HNTB Corporation presented Columbus Council with an update on the project during a council meeting, where local and state supporters were present. Organizations represented included the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, Fort Benning, Columbus Community Foundation, the Department of Transportation, and the Columbus Airport Authority, as well as other local and state entities.
Weber summarized the results of a 10-month feasibility study, which was funded with a $300,000 Georgia Department of Transportation grant and about $50,000 in private donations.
She said a regional or express rail line traveling along the Interstate 185 and Interstate 85 corridor seemed to be the most feasible options, transporting passengers between the Columbus Metropolitan Airport and Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Aiport.
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Weber said top speeds can reach 110 to 150 mph on a regional line and 150 to 220 mph on an express line. The Columbus-Atlanta route is not long enough to reach such speeds, she said. So the top speeds are expected to be closer to 63 and 71 mph, which are the average speeds for regional and express lines,respectively.
The regional trip would be 1 hour and 26 minutes and express would take about an hour.
Weber said Newnan could be a stop along the route, but engineers might also consider other options.
“Feasibility studies are just a study to see if it’s feasible,” she said. “When we actually start to move forward, we then have to dig deeper and we will do more detail analysis on if that stop is really logical or should it be in LaGrange or somewhere else.”
For the year 2030, the express rail system would generate an estimated $28.5 million in revenues against $23.5 million in expenses, according to the feasibility study available at www.columbusga.org/highspeedrail. The Regional system would generate $24.6 million in revenues to offset $21.5 million in operating expenses. One-way trips are projected to be 1.1 million by 2030.
“In the process of doing the environmental study, we may find that there’s some sort of environmental constraint that we can’t do it, or we might have to tweak a little bit, or it could be a different type of technology,” Weber said later in an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer. “At this point, we just don’t have those answers.”
Weber said the Federal Railroad Administration has given a green light for the environmental assessment, but planners have been patiently waiting for federal funds to become available. The recent presidential election makes matters even more uncertain, she said.
“Federal funding with this new administration is, frankly, unknown,” she said. “However, President-elect (Donald) Trump’s ‘America’s Infrastructure-first initiative’ has noted that they want to spend a trillion dollars on transportation infrastructure. Now, again, we’re going to have to wait and see what happens. It’s anybody’s guess right now.”
Weber said she had a conversation with the Federal Railroad Administration in August and was assured that funding would soon be available for the environmental assessment. She said there were also opportunities for private-public partnerships. She said a transit-oriented development company, called All Aboard Florida, has already expressed interest in the project.
“Once you get to the needs (assessment) document, it opens doors for grants and for all kinds of possibilities for funding sources,” she said. “But we have to get through this environmental process first.”