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Why Athens route is preferred over Hall County for high-speed rail
Flowery Branch 2021 11.jpg
A caboose sits on display in downtown Flowery Branch, which straddles the train tracks. - photo by Scott Rogers

Hall County appears out of the running for proposed high-speed passenger rail between Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C.

Officials now favor a route running through Athens that “best meets the purpose and need of the project” in several ways, including that it “would improve overall regional connectivity,” according to a June report by the Georgia Department of Transportation and U.S. Department of Transportation.

Also, the Greenfield Corridor Alternative, as the Athens route is known, “would provide a safe and reliable alternative mode, resulting in improved energy efficiency and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.”

The preferred Greenfield route between Athens and Atlanta hasn’t been decided but could run through either Suwanee or Lawrenceville in Gwinnett County, according to the report.

While officials favor Athens, the project “is in the very early stages of a concept, so who knows down the road what all could change,” said Joseph Boyd, transportation planning director for the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The MPO, which is Hall’s lead transportation planning agency, “will be watching with interest to see where this project goes from here,” Boyd said.

Hall is part of the Southern Crescent Alternative, which would run primarily on a Norfolk Southern railroad line coming out of Atlanta. The route would go through Toccoa into South Carolina and North Carolina.

A third alternative that’s been in consideration would largely follow Interstate 85 in Georgia.

In agency and public comments concerning the three routes, the Athens one was, by far, the most popular.

It was supported in 957 of 1,260 comments, or 76%, according to the report.

The Southern Crescent was a distant second with just 14% support, followed by I-85 with 10% support.

“Many comments expressed support for the fastest and most reliable travel times between major population areas along the corridor, which is consistent with the public’s preference for the Greenfield Corridor Alternative,” the report states.

“This corridor can sustain speeds of up to 125 mph using diesel or 220 mph using electric propulsion.”

Much of the Greenfield route would be on open lands, or property not tied to railroad lines or existing roadway.

“We knew going in that the Athens connection would receive a whole lot of support, both politically and from a populist standpoint,” said Adam Hazell, planning director for the Gainesville-based Georgia Mountains Regional Commission. “How much of that is rooted in the reality of the particular service that would be offered, I can’t say.”

The Southern Crescent would be more congested in Hall, as Norfolk Southern operates a busy rail line, including through Flowery Branch, Oakwood, Gainesville and Lula.

Amtrak now runs along the line, as well, with a station in Gainesville. And the Georgia Ports Authority is looking to create the Northeast Georgia Inland Port off Ga. 365 in northeast Hall, using Norfolk Southern rail line.

Next up for the Atlanta-to-Charlotte project is to identify funding for another “environmental process,” according to a GDOT website.

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