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Opinion: Atlanta needs a plan for high-speed rail

(The following column by Luz Borrero appeared on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution website on August 14, 2009.)

ATLANTA, Ga. — Aiming to decrease dependence on foreign oil, reduce the environmental impact of current transportation options, and spur economic development, the Obama administration announced $8 billion in new investments in up to 600 miles of high-speed rail in some of the country’s most heavily traveled corridors.

Atlanta is well positioned to attract some of this infrastructure funding if we develop a plan, demonstrate willingness to invest locally, and organize credible leadership to show that we can implement it.

But will we be ready when the first rounds of grants are awarded by late summer? Or are we going to risk losing our competitive edge?

Atlanta is among the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country thanks largely to our connectivity to the region, nation and world.

Our railroads, airport and interstates have sustained Atlanta as a center of commerce and have provided us with an advantage over other cities in this region.

Atlanta’s very founding is traced to the decision in 1836 to connect the Western and Atlantic railroad lines in what later became Terminus.

We face a similar decision today regarding a proposal to include Atlanta in two planned high-speed rail corridors, one linking Atlanta to the major cities of the eastern seaboard, the other to the Gulf Coast region and Midwest. It is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.

Atlanta is well positioned to be the Southeastern hub in this high-speed rail vision for America.

Eighty percent of U.S. consumers can be reached within a two-hour flight or two truckload delivery from Atlanta. We are only 225 miles from the Port of Savannah, the nation’s fastest growing and fifth largest container port.

Ranking fifth in the top 10 cities in the U.S. with good logistics, we are situated as a global logistics gateway and top passenger hub.

And Atlanta has been planning the downtown multi-modal passenger terminal, advocating for the Peachtree Street streetcar, and beginning the implementation of the Beltline — the most comprehensive transit, greenspace and economic development project in the country. But these efforts are not enough.

Our state and region are lagging in the competition for strategic investments.

Cities and states across the country have developed initiatives that can be quickly implemented.

Charlotte and North Carolina, for example, have been collaborating for several years on plans to be the southern hub of these high-speed rail networks, and they are eager to execute.

Georgia has none of these plans and no serious effort underway.

The State of Georgia, the Atlanta Regional Commission, the regional business community and our partner organizations must take immediate action.

A persuasive plan for high-speed rail that demonstrates the value we can bring to the national network and the leadership to make it happen must be matched by an aggressive pursuit of federal funds.

The Atlanta region has been a success story for several decades.

But without forward-looking leadership and a willingness to make investments — in transportation, water and energy — we may find ourselves behind our competitors.

Unless we invest, the federal government will not invest.

Luz Borrero is the deputy chief operating officer for the city of Atlanta. She is the chair of the city’s Transportation and BeltLine Sub-Cabinets and provides transportation policy advice to Mayor Shirley Franklin.

Friday, August 14, 2009

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