All Aboard, Georgia!

The future of rail travel in the state

Life is a highway. Leaving on a jet plane. On the road again.

There’s no shortage of transit-related cultural references in American society; the idea of travel and movement is ingrained into the national identity. To many Americans, hitting the open road or hopping on an airplane represents new experiences and opportunities. It is the pinnacle of freedom. And that cultural significance is reflected in many tangible measures. Transportation is a critical sector of the U.S. economy, accounting for 8.4% of the national GDP in 2021. Over the years, transit systems have shaped the landscapes of cities and have been a major driver of economic development.

Nowhere is this more evident than here in the state of Georgia. Georgia boasts 1,253 miles of interstate highway and the world’s busiest airport. In terms of economic impact, the Georgia Municipal Association reported that “$843 billion worth of goods are shipped to and from sites in Georgia”’ every year. Another statistic, cited by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, reveals that “as of 2015 … transportation and warehousing (and the related business of wholesale trade) accounted for about 50 percent more of metro Atlanta’s gross domestic product (GDP) than they make up of the GDP of all U.S. metropolitan areas combined.” It’s safe to say that much of the state’s success hinges on its transportation abilities and status as a commercial hub.

Yet, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, air and automobile travel have faced a growing number of challenges in consumer accessibility and satisfaction.

Flyers in the U.S. have experienced a rash of cancellations and delays, with some particularly notable cases attracting scrutiny from both the public and lawmakers. Reuters reported that “flight cancellations and delays by U.S. airlines in the first seven months of [2022] … surpassed the comparable 2019 period,” with cancellations in particular “up about 11% from pre-pandemic levels.” Recent data have shown that “nearly half (45%) of Americans rate the air travel experience as average or below,” as noted by The Motley Fool. And that’s not an isolated phenomenon. A CNBC survey from 2014 found that, at the time, “only 1 in 4 people called air travel enjoyable” and “40 percent said being in a packed airport is worse than standing in line to get a new driver’s license.”

Meanwhile, automobile travel is facing its own difficulties. Gas prices have put a strain on consumers’ wallets, as the national average per gallon rose from $2.39 in February 2019 to $3.50 in February of this year. Gallup found that 62% of Americans reported driving less in the summer of 2022 because of these prices. Additionally, one of the more traditional barriers to driving still plagues American motorists: traffic. According to an analysis cited by The Hill, “drivers in the U.S. ‘lost’ an average of 51 hours sitting in traffic in 2022.” The same study named Atlanta as the tenth-most congested urban area in the nation, with drivers spending an average of 74 hours in traffic.

These trends have the potential to damage Georgia’s economy. They affect accessibility to reliable and affordable transit for Georgians and raise the question: should the state consider diversifying its transportation options? Should Georgia expand and improve its passenger rail system?

The state has a long history of rail travel. In fact, Atlanta may have not existed at all had it not been for Georgia’s railroad industry. The now-capital city began its history in 1837 under the name Terminus, as it was the southern end of the Western & Atlantic Railroad. The city became a railroad hub not only for the state, but for the region and nation. And while freight rail has remained a robust part of the state’s transportation profile, passenger rail has fallen to the wayside. Currently, only two Amtrak routes pass through Georgia, and these have been criticized for being impractical in many ways.

So, what exactly could a new passenger rail system in Georgia look like? Here are some prospective routes:

Nicknamed “the Brain Train,” this route was conceived to connect some of Georgia’s top colleges. This would include the Georgia Institute of Technology, Emory University, Georgia State University, and the University of Georgia. Proponents say that this connection will foster economic and technological developments. A 2006 piece in the Gwinnett Daily Post touted: “the ‘Brain Train’ will provide an incentive for companies to locate in our emerging bioscience research corridor.” A group called “Georgians for the Brain Train,” helmed by former State Representative and developer Emory Morsberger, was established to promote this route. In 2021, Athens was named as a potential stop on the proposed high-speed rail line that will run between Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina (see Atlanta-Charlotte, North Carolina).

Southeast Passenger Rail Plan // Photo by GDOT

This connection is still in preliminary planning. In 2013, the Columbus Consolidated Government (CCG) commissioned a comprehensive feasibility study considering five potential routes between the two cities. The final report detailed right-of-way, technology alternatives, economic/financial analyses, and “system planning, assessment and implementation.” As described in the 2013 feasibility study, “over 300 elected officials, city and county staff, business leaders, institutions, economic development staff, and other key stakeholders” were identified for early outreach efforts. A “technical advisory group” of significant organizations with interests in the project was established by the CCG; this included corporate, university, and government representatives. Over the years, the CCG has successfully lobbied city leaders in Newnan for their support and gained inclusion of the project in the 2021 State Rail Plan. The next step is for the state of Georgia, in cooperation with the city government, to complete an environmental impact statement in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, although the timeline for this is not yet established.

Currently, there is no direct passenger rail line that connects these cities, despite the fact that Amtrak runs services through both Savannah and Atlanta. To travel from Atlanta to Savannah using Amtrak takes approximately 29 hours and requires a transfer in Alexandria, Virginia. A connection once existed between the two cities through a passenger rail line, which operated until 1971. In 2022, a federal spending package passed that included $8 million in funding for a feasibility study of high-speed rail in this corridor, which has yet to be conducted.

Atlanta and Charlotte are currently connected through Amrtrak’s Crescent route, which runs from New Orleans to New York. However, plans have been proposed to expand service between these two cities into a high-speed rail connection, meaning that trains would reach speeds of at least 110 mph. The route was added to the larger, federally-designated Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor in 1998, which is intended to improve intercity rail between cities in five states and DC. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center prepared a feasibility study for this project. In 2019, the Georgia Department of Transportation completed a Tier 1 Draft Environmental Impact Statement to “establish the Project’s Need and Purpose and evaluate the potential environmental impact of three Corridor Alternatives and a No-Build Alternative.” The Tier 1 Final Environmental Impact Statement was published in 2021. From the three main routes considered, one – known as the Greenfield Corridor Alternative – was selected as the preferred corridor. Potential stops include Athens, Georgia; Anderson, South Carolina; and the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport in South Carolina. Tier 2 of the process will study this preferred route in more detail, but details on timing have not been released.

According to the Georgia Department of Transportation, “transportation demand is outpacing existing and planned roadway capacity between Atlanta and Chattanooga. Currently, there are three major highways serving the corridor: I-75, US 41, and US 27. These highways are projected to operate at or above capacity by the year 2025.” Despite it not being included in the federally-designated high-speed rail corridor, this route has been studied for passenger rail services since 1997. This service has also been considered viable for high-speed ground transportation options, including magnetic levitation technologies that permit trains to reach speeds over 300 mph. The Tier 1 Draft Environmental Impact Statement was published in 2016, and the Tier 1 Final Environmental Impact Statement was published in 2017. The preferred route alternative generally follows I-75 and has potential stops in Cartersville and Dalton. The expected cost of the project ranges between $6 and $9 billion.

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