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What new rail could mean to Meridian

(The following story by Jennifer Jacob Brown appeared on the Meridian Star website on April 27, 2009.)

MERIDIAN, Miss. — Last week, President Obama announced a plan to bring to the United States the type of high speed rail systems currently found in Europe and Japan — and part of the proposed system, connecting Atlanta to New Orleans, will run straight through Meridian.

Meridian Mayor John Robert Smith, a long time advocate of rail transportation, was present at the president's announcement of the plan and spoke at a press conference Wednesday about what high speed rail could mean to Meridian.

Though a map of the proposed routes, viewable at www.fra.dot.gov/us/content/31, shows that the Gulf Coast Corridor route will go through Meridian, it does not indicate that there will be a stop here.

But, Smith said, "Yes, there will be a stop in Meridian, Mississippi."

Smith said it is his understanding that there will be two types of high speed rail — national trains that travel at high speed with few stops, and regional trains that also travel at high speeds, but make more stops.

"The impact you see will be very similar to the impact the interstate highway system had on city centers," Smith said. "Meridian is in a position to be able to enjoy that kind of increased traffic."

Smith said the rail system could not only bring more people through Meridian on the way to somewhere else, but could make it easier for people to make Meridian their destination, helping businesses such as the MSU-Riley Center who strive to attract customers from out of town.

High speed rail could also broaden the scope of job availability for Meridianites, Smith said. "They (Meridian residents) may hop on the train and commute, literally, to Birmingham... and the trip time is less than if they took the highway."

He said high speed rail is sure to cause changes with rail road crossings in Meridian. He said crossings will either be closed, crossed via an underpass or overpass, or protected. He said a crossing can be protected by installing double cross arms and collapsible bollards that make it impossible for motorists to attempt to drive over a crossing when a train is on the way.

Smith mentioned that Kansas Southern and Norfolk Southern, freight lines that run through this area, have announced plans to increase the number of trains they send through Meridian each day to more than 70, which he said will "effectively close" many railroad crossings even before the high speed rail plan is implemented.

Smith said he believes high speed rail has the potential to diminish air travel in the United States, saying that it may make the Meridian Airport, which connects flyers to an airport in Atlanta, obsolete in 20 years.

He also said he expects changes in the rail system to be implemented quickly. "You could easily see speeds of 110, 120 miles per hour in the relatively near future. I'm talking about five years."

The federal government has funded the high speed rail plan with $8 billion in stimulus money, and the Obama administration has asked congress to include $1 billion a year for high speed rail in the federal budget. For more information on the president's plan for high speed rail, visit www.fra.dot.gov/us/content/31.

Monday, April 27, 2009

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