God bless him, Macon Mayor Robert Reichert doesn’t mind going up against extremely long odds. There have been dreams of Macon to Atlanta passenger rail line service since the last Nancy Hanks II pulled away from the Terminal Station in 1971. As the new century dawned, former Mayor C. Jack Ellis was so convinced rail was on the horizon that with great fanfare, he took a group of dignitaries from Atlanta to Macon and on to Savannah using a special Amtrak train in 2001. Amtrak, at the time, was pushing a $12 billion measure through Congress for high-speed rail.
Cost has always been a huge obstacle and there have been many proposals, but not an inch of track has been laid between Macon and Atlanta. We have, though, learned the difference between passenger rail service and high-speed passenger service. The two existing rail lines between the two cities, both owned by Norfolk Southern, would take a great deal of work to be able to handle even moderate-speed service, not to mention high-speed service, which generally begins at 90 mph and up. Aside from speed, both rail lines are increasingly busy with freight -- and with the deepening of the Port of Savannah, rail freight traffic will only increase.
There have also been efforts to prove there is a market for rail service between the two cities. Buses pulled out of Macon daily starting in late 2001 headed up Interstate 75 to return in the evening -- and though convenient, buses, like automobiles, get stuck in Atlanta traffic. So why is rail still attractive for some, including Macon’s mayor? One is air quality. Build more and larger roads to accommodate more vehicles and air quality goes down. Air quality is important because it is one of the factors the Air Force examines during the BRAC process. Will rail service between Macon and Atlanta help with the metro area’s traffic problems? Maybe, but as frustrating as traffic is around Atlanta, the city doesn’t rate in the Top 10 when it comes to congestion and commute times.
What rail would do -- at a cost of probably $1 billion or more (2010 study said $400 million) -- is grow Middle Georgia. Reichert’s idea of pulling local mayors together to form a coalition is a good place to start and may pay off in other areas. The Federal Railroad Administration may be able to provide grants that could jump-start a feasibility study. That along with an update of the rail plan from the Georgia Department of Transportation should give advocates something substantial to sell or tell them to stand down.
Europe holds an example of what high-speed rail can do where speeds of 125 mph and higher are commonplace. While expensive to build the infrastructure, it’s easy to imagine an Atlanta-area executive hopping on a train and 45 minutes later pulling into a station and heading to her mini-mansion that costs less than half of the going price of Atlanta real estate. Maybe her final destination is Savannah? A pipe dream? Maybe, but someone has to provide a vision.