Slower speeds, fewer round trips, less ridership and budget shortfalls are projected if existing rail through Hall County is chosen among three options for proposed Atlanta-Charlotte, N.C. passenger rail service, a report issued by state and federal officials shows.
The historic Southern Crescent route would have the lowest costs to build, at $2 billion to $2.3 billion, depending on projected train speeds.
But otherwise, the route would accommodate only four round trips, compared to as many as 22 on one of the other routes under consideration for the service, according to a report from the Georgia Department of Transportation and Federal Railroad Administration.
Only diesel trains could run on the route, with speeds up 110 mph, while the other routes could serve electrified trains with speeds up to 220 mph.
And the Southern Crescent could be operating with an annual deficit of as much as $21.1 million with service established by 2025, compared to a surplus of nearly $200 million with one of the other routes, the report shows.
All three main routes under consideration would travel the Southern Crescent, which is used by Norfolk Southern Railway and Amtrak, from Atlanta to Suwanee.
But from there, they would go in one of three directions: continuing the Crescent route through Hall County and traveling through Toccoa into the Carolinas; one that follows the path of Interstate 85; and one skirting Athens before turning north toward South Carolina.
The Athens route would be mostly on open lands.
“The key to high-speed rail is few (to) no stops and as uninterrupted a straight shot as possible,” said Adam Hazell, planning director for the Gainesville-based Georgia Mountains Regional Commission.
“They need to minimize to the extreme the number of at-grade crossings and build long, straight segments whenever possible. For this reason, the most likely routes are those that are built new or facilitate the design concept.”
So, using existing tracks “would require extensive rerouting to avoid intersections, traffic congestion and to straighten the line for higher speeds,” Hazell said.
The 32-page state/federal report doesn’t draw any conclusions. Final reports are expected between this fall and summer of 2016.
“The real detail work comes in evaluating the (options),” DOT rail planner Harry Boxler said.
A public comment period, including open houses, could take place sometime between this spring and fall.
One avid supporter of the Southern Crescent is Oakwood City Manager Stan Brown, who attended a summer 2013 public hearing in Suwanee on the rail proposal.
“Granted, when you look at the numbers … the return doesn’t look like a very good investment, but for me, it’s hard to imagine trains going 200 mph on the I-85 corridor,” he said. “I can’t quite visualize that, but it’s easier for me to visualize the use of the Norfolk Southern line.
“If you look at it practically, at what you can afford to do, I think you have to take a hard look at (that) line.”
The Atlanta-Charlotte line would be extension of the Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor, which is under development from Charlotte to Washington, D.C.
The project is looking at connecting to the proposed Georgia Multi Modal Passenger Terminal and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, as well as the proposed Charlotte Gateway Station and Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.
Hall has been long been considered a player in rail. Amtrak runs passenger service through Hall and has a station at 116 Industrial Blvd., Gainesville. And Oakwood has a commuter rail station as part of Oakwood 2030, a long-range development plan for the South Hall city.
Rail also is mentioned in Hall’s 2040 Metropolitan Transportation Plan, a planning document released in August 2011 and which is undergoing an update.
The plan says that projected congested roadways suggest more money will be needed for alternate modes of transportation, such as express buses and commuter rail, “to further improve mobility options.”
Hazell said that even if Hall County loses out on the Atlanta-Charlotte route, it’s still a key player for passenger service.
DOT “still has ambitions of providing commuter rail service into Atlanta and around other parts of the state,” he said. “This would likely feature a line from Gainesville to Atlanta and would be designed to provide an alternative for people to move from one community to the next for work.”
But stay tuned, Hazell said, “as we all know, this (rail line) is still very early in the overall process and there may yet be more twists and turns to come.”