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Editorial: Tennessee should get aboard high-speed rail

(The following editorial appeared on The Tennessean website on August 20, 2010.)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When the idea of an Atlanta-Chattanooga-Nashville high-speed train route was talked about publicly two years ago, proponents contended it should be given serious consideration.

A $1 million feasibility study that had recently been conducted on the Nashville-to-Chattanooga leg showed the project to be doable, but that it would cost an estimated $5.4 billion in public and private dollars.

Now comes word that Tennessee and Georgia's departments of transportation have jointly applied for $34 million in federal stimulus funding to develop high-speed rail service from Atlanta to Chattanooga, Nashville and eventually Louisville, Ky. The Federal Railroad Administration grants would allow the two states to continue environmental planning and engineering for a high-speed link between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Georgia Transportation Commissioner Vance C. Smith Jr. announced recently.

While critics probably will say this is a waste of time and taxpayer money, officials working on the project should continue moving forward with an idea that still is in its early planning and evaluation stages.

"We need to have more of a regional approach to connecting our transportation options, because the current system is not going to be able to satisfy future needs,'' Joe Carpenter, assistant commissioner in charge of the Tennessee Department of Transportation's environment and planning division, says. "Looking down the line, we need to position ourselves to have viable corridors that can support more movement.''

In other states, that is currently being done. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, Virginia recently began a new service to Washington from Charlottesville and Lynchburg that is showing 163 percent more riders than projected. An additional train is being added from Washington to Richmond.

Ridership is also reported to be up 25 percent between St. Louis and Kansas City, 7 percent between New York and Chicago and 12 percent between St. Louis and Chicago. The Federal Railroad Administration also said North Carolina's rail system, which will become a high-speed corridor in the near future, has reported 200 percent growth. In the West, the Amtrak Cascades route is showing record ridership between Seattle and Portland, and Amtrak's Northeast Corridor service has overtaken airlines for travel between New York and Washington.

Growth in auto traffic in China and India and the resulting increase in oil and gasoline costs provide a bellwether showing how expanded rail service will be needed in the U.S. in the future, Carpenter said.

"Our responsibility is to help educate the public on what the implications will be if we had a high-speed rail service from Atlanta to Chattanooga and on to Nashville. We can't sit back and do nothing.''

If we do nothing, Tennessee stands a good chance of being left behind as other states move forward in their different modes of transportation. And, as others have said, if we do nothing toward integrating our modes of transportation, we will only see our highways and airports become more congested than they are now.

Certainly, the idea of traveling to Atlanta from Nashville in only 52 minutes by rail sounds great. But as Carpenter said, it is going to take much more evaluating and planning to be sure that the idea is feasible and not a waste of taxpayer dollars. But if Tennessee sits out the process entirely, it risks being unable to get aboard in coming years, when the need for mass transit will be greatly increased.

Friday, August 20, 2010

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