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Southeast considers high-speed rail line

(The following article by Larry Copeland was posted on the USA Today website on December 11.)

NEW YORK -- It used to be possible to zip from one city in the Southeast to another along interstate highways that were seldom crowded outside major metropolitan centers.

But two decades of unprecedented growth have changed all that. Today, a driver heading from here to Birmingham, Ala., or from Charlotte to Columbia, S.C., is likely to encounter the same congestion long familiar to motorists in other regions.

Now, in a rare effort of regional cooperation, six Southeastern states are joining to push for an alternative - an ambitious, high-speed train network that would connect the region and link it with Washington, D.C. Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee and their allies in Congress recently won $750,000 in federal funds to study the possibility of such a system.

Business leaders in the region, who are spearheading the effort, are touting the rail proposal's unusual financing scheme. The federal government would pay for building the rail network at an estimated cost of about $6 billion. But once the tracks were completed, a private company would operate it, using its own rail cars and without government subsidies.

Proponents say this part of the proposal makes it attractive to skeptical members of Congress, who are reluctant to back an Amtrak-like system requiring continuing subsidies.

"When we were talking to the members, we would always hear, 'I don't understand how you're going to pay for it, and I don't want another Amtrak,' " says Jean Kirby, executive director of the Southeastern Economic Alliance, a 3-year-old coalition of business executives and 14 chambers of commerce from the six states.

Troubled provider

Amtrak, which runs through every state except Alaska, Hawaii, South Dakota and Wyoming, is the nation's only provider of city-to-city passenger rail service between states. But it almost shut down two years ago because of money shortages. Its trains run mostly on tracks owned by freight companies, and they must compete with freight trains for the use of track that is in such poor condition in some places that the top safe speed is 20 mph.

"Our business approach to high-speed rail was really important in our meetings in Congress," Kirby says. "It allows a private company to come in and make a profit and eliminates the need for ongoing operational subsidies. That is what gets everyone excited."

Well, not everyone.

Opponents of high-speed rail say it's unlikely that such a network would ever be built. Even if it is, they say, it's unlikely to relieve congestion.

"The first thing to understand about the Southeast high-speed rail program is that it's not high-speed rail. It's so-so speed rail," says Wendell Cox, head of a St. Louis consulting firm that studies demographics and public policy.

"Even if there was a market for high-speed rail, which there is not, this is not high-speed. It's too slow to get anybody out of their cars. When you consider getting to the station, going through security, then getting in and out of a cab to get to your destination, there's no advantage at all."

Cox argues that most congestion on interstate highways is concentrated around big metropolitan areas and that drivers would rather tolerate it than give up their automobiles. He also doubts that any such high-speed rail network could support itself.

Although the merits of high-speed rail are still debated, it is being pursued in several areas.

"This is a huge issue that's being raised across the country because we're running out of capacity on our freeways and at our airports," says Fred Abousleman, transportation director at the National Association of Regional Councils, a non-profit group that serves local officials across the nation who are seeking regional approaches to key challenges.

During the 1990s, the federal government designated 11 areas as high-speed corridors. Proponents in the Southeast note that their region's corridor is the only one where experts say a rapid rail system could break even from fares alone.

They envision a network that would build new track alongside existing tracks now used for freight, wherever possible, at a cost of $5 million to $10 million per mile. They say the trains would travel at average speeds between 85 and 130 mph. The service would cater to business travelers at fares competitive with air trips of less than 300 miles.

"It would have positive implications on clear air," says U.S. Rep. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who helped get funding for the study. "There are some suggestions that it could take 25% of the traffic off Interstate 85 during peak drive times."

North Carolina, which already owns the tracks inside its borders, is the state most likely to be up and running first. In most states, rail companies own the track. The state already has a conventional rail system featuring 12 trains providing daily passenger service on six routes. Now, finding money for the faster system is the main obstacle.

'A very valid approach'

"It's gone from being a gleam in the eye to proving to be a very valid approach," says Pat Simmons, rail division director of the North Carolina Department of Transportation. "We need a funding partner in the form of the federal government. Congress has looked at a variety of ways to deal with it."

Last month, Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., and five other senators introduced a bill that would provide $42 billion over six years to develop new passenger lines, strengthen Amtrak and improve freight service. It would create a non-profit public-private partnership to issue $30 billion in bonds to build rail systems. Its prospects for passage next year are uncertain.

Sam Williams, president of the Metropolitan Atlanta Chamber of Commerce (news - web sites), came up with the idea for a regional alliance for trains. He says it represents a new approach.

"We came to the conclusion that we're not in competition with each other," he says. "Our competition is Japan, California, Frankfurt. Our economy is a Southeast regional economy. If we can get this done, it's going to be a rising tide for all boats in the region."

Nevertheless, nobody expects to see high-speed trains racing across Dixie anytime soon.

At best, experts say, efforts like this are incremental steps toward a network that even the most optimistic proponents say is at least five to seven years away from completion of its first leg.

Says Isakson: "I'm not sure I'll be alive when it's running."

Thursday, December 11, 2003

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