Somewhere, E.H. Culpepper is smiling.
The late Athens civic leader, who died in 2009, spent 20 years of his life trying to get commuter rail from Athens to Atlanta. Now, with the Federal Railroad Administration and Georgia Department of Transportation looking at options for high speed rail from Atlanta to Charlotte, NC, his dream is closer to being realized. But it may take another generation.
Known as the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor, the first leg will run along existing tracks at speeds of 85-110 miles per hour between Richmond, VA, Raleigh, NC, and Charlotte, NC, starting between 2018 and 2022. Track upgrades are being funded with $620 million from the 2009 federal stimulus package.
The next step is a feasibility study for the Charlotte-to-Atlanta leg of the corridor, which is where Athens comes in. Five potential routes run along existing tracks or interstate highways—two through Greenville, SC, two through Augusta and one through Athens. A sixth possibility is a "greenfield" route that would run about 15 miles north of Athens.
Athens residents turned out in force for a public hearing in Suwanee. Athens was better represented than any other city, according to GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale, which doesn't surprise her.
"Athens, by nature, is thought of as a more innovative, progressive, forward-thinking community," she says.
Athens Area Chamber of Commerce President Doc Eldridge, Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Chuck Jones and Classic Center Executive Director Paul Cramer were among those who made the trek by shuttle van.
"Not only did we have a sizable contingent, we were very vocal," Jones says.
High speed rail could take congestion off of Highway 316 and bring more visitors to Athens by making travel from Hartsfield-Jackson Airport more convenient, Jones says. People riding the train from Atlanta to Charlotte or Washington, D.C. could stop in Athens and spend money, the way driving travelers stop in Macon or Augusta, he says.
Athens will face competition from other cities, though.
'We support high speed rail and think it would be transformational for the area," says Leslie Fletcher, communications manager for the City of Greenville. "We, of course, want it to come through Greenville and have said that we would like for it to run through our train station in downtown Greenville, though GSP would be desirable as well."
GSP is the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport. That route—the greenfield route that would be built from scratch—is "probably (GDOT's) preferred option," Eldridge says. It has a number of advantages, according to University of Georgia College of Environment and Design professor Jack Crowley.
For one, building tracks specifically for high speed rail would allow speeds up to 200 miles per hour, compared to 60-80 miles per hour along the CSX-owned freight tracks running through Athens, Crowley says. The cost might be higher, but upgrading existing tracks will have plenty of hidden costs, he says.
While the greenfield route runs north of Nicholson, Crowley believes it could come further south, near Sandy Creek Park. As part of the downtown master plan Crowley is writing, he is pushing GDOT to buy the little-used freight rail line that runs through UGA's East Campus for $6 million and turn it into a people mover. That same line could also serve as a spur linking the greenfield line to the Multimodal Center in downtown Athens.
"You could very easily take the line we're working on in the downtown plan and send it northward," he says.
People who couldn't make it to the Suwanee meeting can still weigh in by visiting www.dot.ga.gov/atlantacharlotteHSR. There's plenty of time. Not to throw sand on anyone’s tracks, but GDOT is scheduled to select a route in 2015, and trains won't be running before 2025.
"Unfortunately, I don't think I'll be alive when it happens," Eldridge says.
GDOT said the city would be getting passenger rail service as far back as 1998, the former mayor says. "The Multimodal Center is where it is today because GDOT virtually told us, yes, commuter rail is coming," Eldridge says.
A GDOT study found that the Athens-Atlanta line was on the wrong side of a cost/benefit analysis, Dale says. Eldridge chalks up to the failure to commuter buses that started running in Gwinnett County.
Folks like Culpepper and developer Emory Morsberge continued to push the "Brain Train" connecting UGA with research universities in Atlanta. But it was stuck on GDOT's priority list behind an Atlanta-to-Lovejoy line that the state never ponied up the money for.
Still, Dale calls the site selection process progress.
"That seems like a long time to a citizen, but working in the transportation industry, that's around the corner," she says. "That's moving."
GDOT's support for high speed rail does show a shift in the agency's attitude toward modes of transportation that aren't highways. It's all about choices, Dale says—plane or train; pay a toll or sit in traffic. "Transportation can't be one size fits all anymore," she says.
After a preferred route is chosen, the next steps are a feasibility study to determine whether enough people would ride it to make it worthwhile, then finding a source of funding. The project doesn't have a price tag yet, and costs would likely be split.
Crowley, though a supporter, is pessimistic the project will ever make it that far. Questions remain at GDOT, too, about whether Southerners will embrace rail the way commuters in the denser Northeast have, Dale says.
"The will to do it in the most conservative states doesn't exist," Crowley says.