HTNB, a private consultant working for the state Department of Transportation, presented a study to that body on Wednesday that suggested that it would be economically feasible to construct high-speed passenger rail lines connecting Atlanta with Savannah, Jacksonville, Fla., Louisville, Ky. and Birmingham, Ala. Such a network likely would pass through or near Cobb County, which is already traversed by several conventional rail lines.
The proposed high-speed rail line is not to be confused with the light-rail line that could be built between the Art Center MARTA Station in Atlanta and Cumberland Mall in Cobb, should the TSPLOST referendum be approved by voters July 31. The light-rail line would be strictly local in character, with more stops and much slower speeds.
High-speed rail entails long distances between stops to allow the trains to achieve the blinding speeds that give them their name. Only two stations (in Cartersville and Dalton) are envisioned in Georgia on the Atlanta-to-Louisville link of the high-speed line, for example, according to the Associated Press. There also would be stops in Chattanooga, Murfeesboro and Nashville, Tenn., and Bowling Green and Elizabethtown, Ky.
There would be a stop in Anniston on the Atlanta-to-Birmingham route.
An earlier study looked at an Atlanta-to-Charlotte route and is now in the environmental impact stage.
The lines would intersect in Atlanta, and stations are possible downtown and/or at Hartsfield Jackson Airport at which travelers could switch between various modes of transportation.
In a perfect world, such a network of lines would have been built and paid for decades ago. But realistically, several questions must be considered:
* Who would ride such a line? Is there sufficient demand between Atlanta and Louisville (and the stops in between) to justify construction, for example?
* Is there sufficient population density in the various corridors to support the lines?
* Would the trip time be faster than that offered by current transportation modes (car, bus and passenger train)? (One would presume that to be the case, but you never know.)
* Would the ticket cost for a high-speed rail trip from Atlanta to Jacksonville be competitive with the cost of a plane ticket between those destinations?
* Might it be faster and cheaper to just add additional highway capacity where possible?
* Would private investors help share in some of the costs?
* How would such lines overcome the question of what to do about the thousands of grade-crossings that bedevil the current rail lines? There could be no grade crossings for a high-speed line because of safety considerations. That means that all of those thousands of roads in the path of the high-speed trains would have to be bridged over, tunneled under or rerouted, at staggering cost.
And therein lies the probable rub — the cost of such a line. Published reports in the Savannah Morning News peg the construction cost for the proposed line at up to $41 million per mile. And the annual budget for maintenance and operations would be potentially ruinous as well, even after federal dollars and even after the other costs are divided by the multiple jurisdictions involved.
Looking ahead, a high-speed rail line could be the answer to Southeastern transportation needs in the 21st and 22nd centuries. Or it could be just a steel-wheeled version of the now-grounded Concorde transatlantic jetliner: A sleek, extraordinarily fast means of getting from Point A to Point B, but one so costly that few could afford it, even after enormous government subsidies were factored in.
It’s way too early to climb on or jump off this train; but not too early to start considering its pros and cons for Cobb and Georgia.