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Will Georgia go from roads to rails?
State transportation officials press ahead to grab a slice of stimulus pie
Erik Steavens, director of the Georgia Department of Transportation Intermodal Programs Division, speaks about the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor at a meeting Wednesday at the Frances Meadows Aquatic and Community Center. - photo by Tom Reed


Denise Deal, executive director of Vision 2030, talks about how she believes the Hall County community should proceed with the discussion about rail travel.

Could high-speed rail really be within the grasp of automobile-loving Southerners?

Georgians seem to favor the four-wheeled metal box as they travel country back roads or descend on Sanford Stadium in Athens on fall Saturdays.

But then there's the rougher side: During holidays and other busy times, highways are often jammed with traffic trying to enter or leave the state.

The Georgia Department of Transportation is moving along on the concept, which has become a way of life in Europe and the Northeast, but not so much blinked at here in the land of grits and barbecue.

Erik Steavens, director of the DOT's Intermodal Programs Division, said last week during a public meeting in Gainesville that he believes high-speed rail could become a national priority under President Barack Obama, just like an interstate system was for President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

And if Obama, who has set aside $8.1 billion in stimulus funding for the transportation mode, keeps up the push, "we may have trains in 10 to 15 years."

Srikanth Yamala, planning manager for the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the stimulus money, plus "significant funds for high-speed rail in the next transportation bill makes me hopeful that I will ride on one of those (trains) in the next 20-25 years."

Georgia, which has been working with South Carolina and North Carolina on planning a cross-state rail system, could learn more in a week or so from the U.S. Department of Transportation about the fate of the stimulus money.

The federal government is considering spending the money, which requires no matching funds from other governmental entities, on projects that are mostly ready for construction and involve established corridors and planning efforts.

Steavens said he believes Georgia could qualify for some cash, but other states can make strong cases for it, particularly those in the Northeast, where infrastructure is crumbling on rail lines, and the West, where financial backing is in place.

Georgia's High Speed Ground Transportation Steering Committee plans to appear before the DOT board on Wednesday to talk about rail.

Also, Steavens plans to address the board about an "interim state rail plan" that accounts for cross-state rail and lower-speed commuter rail connecting Georgia cities.

In both cases, Gainesville-Hall County has a vested interest. According to the DOT's Web site, Gainesville, Buford, Flowery Branch and Oakwood are mentioned as stops in a possible commuter rail system.

And being considered for funding is a rail line from Washington, D.C., to Charlotte, N.C., and then from Charlotte to Jacksonville, Fla., running through Gainesville.

Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Mass., completed a study last summer for the Georgia DOT, evaluating high-speed rail options in the Macon-Atlanta-Greenville-Charlotte Rail Corridor. The study mentions a possible route connecting Greenville, S.C., and Gainesville.

"Approaching Gainesville, there should be no major obstacles to sharing (right of way) or acquiring (right of way) for double track," according to the report.

The report shows a picture of the Gainesville Amtrak station, which, "needs to be upgraded but appears to have sufficient space to allow significant modification," according to the report.

"The station is near the central business district and could become a focal point for rehabilitation for the area, which is slightly degraded."

Further, the report states, the corridor "between Gainesville and Doraville is straight but of increasing density as it approaches Atlanta."

Denise Deal, executive director of Vision 2030, said she believes the Amtrak station "plays beautifully" with Midtown redevelopment "and over the long term, it does nothing but positively enhance ... that whole district."

Vision 2030, which falls under the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, has listed rail service to Gainesville as a key priority.

The concept of high-speed rail got a number of skeptical looks at last week's hearing at the Frances Meadows Aquatic and Community Center.

There were quips about whether the form of travel could be experienced in golden years and questions about costs and ridership interest.

"You can't get enough people to ride MARTA, and we need to figure out why that is," real estate developer Larry Long of Gainesville said after the meeting, which drew some 50-55 people. "If we can figure that out, then maybe we can move to the next step and do high-speed rail."

He added that he believes "people aren't going to take a high-speed rail from Atlanta to Charlotte when they can drive there in four hours, unless it's a lot higher speed and can get you where you're going."

Long said he also believes Atlanta's traffic problems should be solved first.

Steavens said rail could help resolve some road congestion by putting those commuters on trains. But he also acknowledged, "We love our automobiles — that what makes us great as Americans."

Yamala said he believes high-speed rail is long overdue in the U.S. "I think high-speed rail will become a desired choice to many who prefer reading a book or working on their laptop or even taking a quick nap ... (over) limiting themselves to driving in traffic," he said.

"The more such choices a community can provide, the better it is for economic development as well."

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