State’s high-speed rail efforts keep heading off track

McClatchy NewspapersMay 31, 2011 

WASHINGTON -- Chalk it up to mixed signals or funding roadblocks, but for a multitude of reasons Georgia’s high-speed rail plans just keep getting derailed.

Georgia was snubbed by President Barack Obama’s administration this year for federal high-speed rail money. This month, the administration awarded more than $2 billion to high-speed rail projects across the country, including $4 million to North Carolina to do an environmental analysis on the Richmond, Va., to Raleigh, N.C., section of a line with top speeds of 110 mph on the proposed Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor.

Other winning proposals included $15 million for engineering and environmental work to develop a high-speed rail corridor linking Dallas/Fort Worth to Houston.

By contrast, Georgia requested $23 million, not for a high-speed rail line, but to move an existing Amtrak station in Atlanta roughly one mile south. The funding request was denied.

The state previously received $750,000 in federal funding for high-speed rail feasibility studies.

A lack of state funding and broader support to help pull off high-speed rail in the Peach State prompted Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to note last year that Georgia “needs to get its act together.”

“By 2050, the United States will be home to 100 million additional people. That’s the equivalent of adding another California, Texas, New York and Florida combined,” LaHood said in a statement about the high-speed rail funding awards. “Our transportation networks simply cannot accommodate that kind of growth, and if we settle for the status quo, our children and grandchildren will remain dependent on foreign oil and continue to suffer from ever-higher gas prices.”

But in Georgia, the matter of building high-speed rail is every bit as tangled as the network of clogged roadways and rush-hour bottlenecks on the highways surrounding Atlanta.

Georgia now collects fuel-related taxes, but those funds can only be used for road or bridge projects. That means items such as high-speed passenger rail, aviation, shipping and other aspects of transportation are sometimes denied needed funding.

If a referendum on the August 2012 ballot for a 1-cent sales tax that would last 10 years is approved, the money would provide matching funds for federal dollars designed to improve high-speed rail and other transportation needs.

But that’s a mighty big if. Lawmakers such as Macon Mayor Robert Reichert worry that a lack of will at the state level, coupled with voter aversion to higher taxes, means that Georgia will continue to lag behind.

“We need to get a groundswell of support,” said Reichert, who is co-chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ task force on high-speed rail. “You cannot build enough lanes on the interstate to satisfy the transportation needs of this country over the next 50 years. And you can’t fly everybody. You have to have the third leg, and that’s high-speed rail.”

Reichert says the Georgia Department of Transportation leadership has shown an unwillingness to advocate aggressively for high-speed rail.

The DOT counters that it used previous federal awards to study the feasibility of high-speed rail lines from Atlanta to Birmingham, Macon to Jacksonville and Atlanta to Louisville. A study on the feasibility of a line from Atlanta to Chattanooga is being wrapped up, said Jill Goldberg, deputy press secretary at DOT.

Reichert said members of Congress will have to get involved to make high-speed rail a priority.

“This is the type of decision Washington is going to have to step up to the plate and have to dictate the same way they had to dictate the standards for interstate highways,” Reichert said.

Target of cuts

But in the nation’s capital, support for high-speed rail is tepid at best.

This week, based on topics that Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., discussed with constituents in a recent series of town hall meetings, the freshman congressman put forth a proposal to kill federal funding to high-speed rail projects, a potential savings of $3.8 billion, to help cut the federal budget deficit. The proposed cuts are listed on YouCut.com, the website of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. The site gives the public a chance to say what areas of the budget they’d trim.

“Washington has a spending problem and if we are going to get off this path of fiscal destruction, we must continue to make robust cuts and rid ourselves of wasteful and duplicative programs; these proposals aim to do just that,” Rep. Scott wrote constituents. “I need your to help decide which proposal should make it to the floor for a vote.”

High-speed rail funding is on the virtual chopping block because some states worry that they’ll be forced to pick up the operating costs after the rail lines are built using federal grants.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott rejected $2 billion for high-speed rail that would have connected to Tampa to Orlando, money that other states were then able to compete for in a recent round of Transportation Department awards. Gov. Scott called the high-speed rail money a big government boondoggle.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.

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