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Will Jacksonville get Georgia’s fast trains?

Florida is among four states to which Georgia may send high-speed rail.
Florida is among four states to which Georgia may send high-speed rail.
Map | Georgia DOT

Map | Georgia DOT

Florida is among four states to which Georgia may send high-speed rail.

By Leo King

Jacksonville Transportation Examiner

Gov. Rick Scott killed Florida’s high-speed rail project from Tampa to Orlando last January, and with it, an extension to Miami. Yet Florida may still get its first taste of high-speed rail from an unlikely source: Georgia.

In the Georgia DOT’s current thinking, a line, a corridor, would operate from Atlanta to Macon, possibly from there directly to Jacksonville, or more likely from Macon to Savannah then to Jacksonville. For now, Jacksonville would be an end point – and also an origination point.

In any event, Florida would get fast trains.

Florida would not be the only state to benefit from Georgia’s plans.

In the big picture, other states included would be Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky and possibly the Carolinas.

Georgia DOT spelled out details, as they stand so far, on a web site, http://gahsr.squarespace.com/.Its ongoing feasibility study is expected to be published in November.

“Transportation needs are ever-growing in the Southeast, and the Federal Railroad Administration, in conjunction with the Obama Administration, has dedicated funds to studying whether high-speed rail may be the right solution to help the region meet future demands on its transportation infrastructure. Therefore, the Georgia DOT, in cooperation with stakeholders of Tennessee, Alabama, Florida and Kentucky, is conducting high-speed rail feasibility studies to identify cost effective routes for Express, Regional, and emerging levels of high-speed rail service,” GDOT stated.

Under President Obama, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) designates federal funding to high-speed rail development. A total of $8 billion in ARRA funds is available for intercity and high-speed rail, and the FY2010-14 proposed funding appropriations for high-speed rail equals $5 billion.

Other grant programs such as Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) and High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) have historically funded high-speed rail studies. State level grants and financing programs are also available for match funding of the federal programs. This match is typically 20 percent, but can vary depending on the project and the funding mechanisms.

A more innovative funding strategy that is become more mainstream in recent years is public-private partnerships, often refer to as “P3.” Within a P3, private investors and public entities join together to allow for more private sector participation from both a delivery and financing standpoint. There are many types of P3 structures, which vary in responsibility and risk. However, the P3s allow for more flexible funding by including the private sector into the project.

The GDOT writers pointed out, “High-speed rail is a desirable alternative to highway transportation because it can get you where you want to go faster… at speeds of 110 mph or greater. High Speed Rail is quick, reliable, energy efficient, environmentally clean, and is comfortable for city-to-city travel. Rail passengers are relieved of issues including parking, traffic, vehicle maintenance costs, and delays.”

They added, “The High Speed Rail Feasibility Study is one of the first steps towards integrating new rail transportation technologies in the Southeast. Feasibility studies provide a basis for decisions and serve as a driver for economic growth and stability. The study will guide in making decisions about the implementation of a high-speed rail system.”

The benefits of high-speed rail are widely recognized and include areas such as economic, environmental, and community benefits. High-speed rail can:

■ Provide an alternative to highway travel reduces roadway congestion, thus increasing mobility for both highway and rail passengers.

■ Support transit-oriented development, smart growth policies, and existing transit infrastructure within cities along the corridors.

■ Create jobs and support economic stability through construction and operation, promote new development near corridors, and spur revitalization and community re-investment.

■ Reduce automobile dependence in communities, which increases air quality and has a positive impact on the environment.

■ Provide an alternative to air travel, reducing overall travel times.

The study will include alternative development, ridership forecasts, operation and maintenance costs, and for all capital costs for each of the corridors. Ultimately, the study will decide if the corridors are feasible candidates for further studies and recommend an alignment and technologies within these corridors.

GDOT is thinking about passenger rail service along three corridors – Atlanta to Louisville, Atlanta to Birmingham, and Macon to Jacksonville.

The Atlanta-Macon-Savannah-Jacksonville line will serve a variety of purposes including business and leisure travel, according to the GDOT notions so far.

Stops along the Georgia and Florida coasts will serve as major destinations for personal travel. This corridor will also include potential connections from Macon to Atlanta including Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Further, business travelers will have another viable option for commutes between Macon (and Atlanta) and southern Georgia-northern Florida.

Providing high-speed rail between these cities will ultimately compete with auto and air travel. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport serves as the largest hub in the southeastern U.S. This line would potentially provide a connection from other areas in the south to the airport for connecting flights.

Further, auto dependency along this corridor is prominent. I-75 is one of the heaviest traveled corridors in Georgia and Florida and providing a high-speed alternative will ultimately reduce congestion and pollution along this corridor.

Since last February, the study has solicited input from stakeholders along the study corridor regarding representative alignments, technologies and issues and opportunities. This information along with a technical review of the corridor yielded two representative alignments, one alignment representing a shared-use alternative using existing freight rail corridors and one dedicated-use alternative using a combination of existing rail and interstate corridors as well as "greenfield" corridors. The shared-use corridor represents a 90 to 110 mph diesel power technology; while the dedicated-use corridor represents both 220 mph – or faster – electrified trains as well as 300 mph Maglev train technologies.

The stakeholders identified for this study corridor include Atlanta Regional Commission, City of Macon, Macon-Bibb Planning and Zoning Commission, Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission, Coastal Regional Commission, Jacksonville Transportation Authority, and North Florida Transportation Planning Organization.

Currently, the study is conducting ridership, revenue, and costing analyses to determine the overall feasibility of the corridor for the three speed technologies.

As a part of these analyses, potential station locations were determined based on existing and forecast demographics and travel markets.

The potential stations and alignments are intended only to be representations of the corridor and this study does not determine the precise locations.

If the study concludes that this corridor is feasible, the next steps of the process will be to conduct a more detailed and thorough analysis in which the exact locations of both the finalized alignment and stations will be determined.

The study will identify the cities in which locations for potential stations along each corridor will be located. On average, station spacing on a high-speed rail system should be limited to one stop every 30-60 miles.

Passenger rail stations are typically located in downtown centers, suburban areas near interstate highways, and adjacent to major special attractors such as transit interchanges, airports, or major tourist attractions. It is important to link major transportation hubs into a high-speed rail system, such as the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The primary means of accessing stations would be automobile, public transit, or by walking. Most stations would be served by taxis, regional transit, bus and shuttle bus operators. Downtown stations will ideally be within walking distance of major trip generators and employment and activity centers.

Three major train technologies are proposed to be used in this study:

  • Emerging High Speed Rail: Talgo T-21 “Integrated Tilting Diesel Trains” 90-110 mph
  • Express High Speed Rail: Siemens ICE-- “High Speed Electric Trains” 150-220 mph
  • Advanced High Speed Rail: Transrapid - “Maglev” 250+ mph

Links to more information on high-speed rail technology:

www.ushsr.com/benefits.html

www.uic.org/spip.php/mot20

New legislation may be necessary to advance high-speed rail along the three corridors. However, at the current stage of the study process, no legislation will be introduced.

High-speed rail systems are viable strategies in reducing CO2emissions, thus addressing air pollution and global warming issues, as well as curbing resource consumption. Recent environmental analyses and studies for California’s proposed high-speed train system found high-speed rail would have the following benefits by 2030:

■ Less impact on the environment than expanding airports and highways, less potential impact on wetlands and water resources, biology and farmlands; and less noise impact.

■ High-speed trains need only one-third of the energy than that of an airplane and one-fifth of an automobile trip.

■ Save million barrels of oil per year by 2030, even with future improvements in auto fuel efficiency.

■ Reduce pollutant and greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on fossil fuels.

■ Decrease air pollutants statewide and in all air basins analyzed by reducing pollution generated by automobile internal combustion engines.

The feasibility studies will incorporate economic impacts such as potential revenue and cost-benefit ratios for the alignments. Economic impacts to communities associated with high-speed rail lines and stations will be evaluated in future studies, for those corridors deemed feasible.

The study will also evaluate five uses of property – existing railroad rights-of-way, highway rights-of-way, the Governor’s Road Improvement Program (GRIP) network in Georgia, power and other utility corridors and “greenfield” alignments.

Since the goals of the study are to determine the most feasible, as determined by a variety of factors, outlook for the rail line, maximizing the use of existing transportation corridors and railroad rights-of-way are prioritized.

If the study progresses beyond initial study stages and on to design and construction stages, and if it is necessary for GDOT to purchase private property, an informational booklet on property right-of-way will be made available.

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