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Georgia wants its share of billions in rail money

(The following story by Jeff Gill appeared on the Gainesville Times website on June 10, 2009.)

GAINESVILLE, Ga. ó Erik Steavens pressed his thumb to his forefinger to form an "O," holding his hand up for the audience to see.

"Goose eggs," he said, adding thatís what those who work in rail planning have come to expect when it comes to federal investment.

So, transportation officials were downright giddy when President Barack Obama
announced $8 billion in federal stimulus money for high-speed rail.

"Quite amazing. Itís really kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Steavens, director of the Georgia Department of Transportationís Intermodal Programs Division, as he spoke to a Gainesville audience Wednesday morning.

Before the injection of money, Georgia, working with South Carolina and North Carolina on planning a cross-state rail system, "were at a quandary (of) how do we move forward," Steavens said.

He said Georgia could learn more in a week or so from the U.S. Department of Transportation about the fate of the stimulus money.

Thereís plenty of motivation to pursue the money, which requires no matching funds from other governmental entities, said Steavens, speaking at a public forum sponsored by the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization.

"This is a phenomenal opportunity," he added, beaming as he spoke.

The federal government is considering spending the money particularly on projects that are mostly ready for construction and involve established corridors and planning efforts.

Steavens said he believes Georgia could qualify for some cash, although the state faces some stiff competition, including Northeastern states where infrastructure is crumbling on high-speed rail lines and on the West Coast, where financial backing is in place.

He urged the stateís metropolitan planning groups and "folks along the corridor to write letters in support for (high-speed rail), maybe talk to their congressional delegations ó the usual kinds of things you do when youíre dealing with discretionary money."

Being considered for funding is a rail line from Washington, D.C., to Charlotte, N.C., and then from Charlotte to Jacksonville, Fla., running through Gainesville, said Srikanth Yamala, the planning organizationís transportation Planning Manager.

Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Mass., completed a study last summer for the Georgia DOT, evaluating high-speed rail options in the Macon-Atlanta-Greenville-Charlotte Rail Corridor.

"The train service to be studied for this corridor will have top speeds that are significantly faster than existing Amtrak service, might follow existing rail routes or employ a new straighter right-of-way," according to the report.

The study mentions a possible route connecting Greenville, S.C., and Gainesville.

"Approaching Gainesville, there should be no major obstacles to sharing (right of way) or acquiring (right of way) for double track," according to the report.

The report shows a picture of the Gainesville Amtrak station, which, "needs to be upgraded but appears to have sufficient space to allow significant modification," according to the report.

"The station is near the central business district and could become a focal point for rehabilitation for the area, which is slightly degraded."

Further, the report states, the corridor "between Gainesville and Doraville is straight but of increasing density as it approaches Atlanta."

High-speed rail, with train speeds of 90 to 200 mph, would require "very straight tracks and very subtle curves," Steavens said. "In Georgia, the freight rail system is not very long and gentle in its geometry."

Audience members served up a variety of questions, including Amtrakís role in a future system, how high-speed rail might mix with "low-speed" commuter rail connecting Georgiaís cities and just when high-speed rail might become reality.

Steavens said if the money were available now, "it would probably take us eight to nine years to be able to go through the environmental processes, right-of-way locations and all that to build it."

He said Georgia could be involved in an environmental process for three years.

"In that time, weíll need to look at how do you do right of way and design," Steavens said.

If Obama pursues high-speed rail like President Dwight D. Eisenhower championed the interstate system, he added, "we may have trains in 10 to 15 years."

Otherwise, the state could be looking at 20-25 years.

"You look like a young lady, so I hope youíd be able to ride that train when it starts service," he said to the questioner.

"As long as itís wheelchair-accessible," she shot back, drawing laughter from the crowd.

Yamala said he was pleased with the meeting, which was attended by some 50-plus people.

"I think itís very important that local entities that want a piece of the pie start incorporating the rail element in their plans and support the stateís overall efforts," he said.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

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