A route through Athens has been chosen for a proposed high-speed rail line between Atlanta and Charlotte. Now all it needs is a few billion dollars.
The “greenfield route” is one of three options and includes stops in either Doraville or Suwanee or Tucker and Lawrenceville, along with Athens, Anderson, SC and the Greenville-Spartanburg airport. It would reach speeds of up to 220 miles per hour, making what’s a four-hour drive (with no traffic) from Atlanta to Charlotte in about 2 hours to 2 hours and 45 minutes, depending on whether diesel or faster electric engines are used.
The line is part of the proposed Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor that would eventually run through Raleigh and Richmond to Washington, D.C. From there, Amtrak’s high-speed Acela line already runs to New York City and Boston. Currently the only intercity passenger rail service available in Georgia is Amtrak’s Silver Crescent line, which stops in Gainesville and Atlanta on its way between New York and New Orleans, and the Palmetto line, which runs from Miami through Savannah up the East Coast. But Amtrak wants to spend $75 billion in funding from President Biden’s infrastructure plan to expand service nationwide, including new routes connecting Atlanta to Chattanooga, Nashville, Macon, Savannah and Montgomery.
While it’s not the same project, the Atlanta-Charlotte high-speed rail line revives hopes for the “Brain Train,” so called because it would have connected UGA and Atlanta’s universities. That idea dates back to the 1990s, and in 2005 Athens-Clarke County even sited its new bus station on a rail line in preparation, although the Multimodal Transportation Center remains unimodal because the Brain Train never materialized.
The high-speed rail line might never materialize, either, with costs projected at $6 billion to $8 billion and no funding attached. Even if federal funding becomes available through the infrastructure bill or some other means, Georgia would be asked to provide matching funds covering 10-20% of the costs, which seems unlikely under a Republican administration, as the GOP generally prefers to spend transportation dollars on paving highways. (Research has shown that approach doesn’t reduce traffic congestion, because of “induced demand”—widening roads simply encourages more people to drive.) And even if the state did agree to help fund the project, it would still take decades to plan and build.
The route is expected to be popular, though. By 2050, the Georgia Department of Transportation estimates it would carry 5 or 6 million passengers a year. That’s about the same as a rejected route along I-85, which would cost about twice as much. Revamping the Silver Crescent line for high-speed rail would cost less but also only carry an estimated 1 million passengers a year.
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