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Friday, February 11, 2011

The US Needs Mass Transit

Last week the editorial board of the Daily Citizen printed their editorial for the day titled “Shut-Down High-Speed Rail Study.” Rarely will an editorial get much a reaction out of me, but this one really hit a nerve. I also rarely support massive federal projects. But I do believe in high-speed rail as the only form of mass transit that will get Americans out of their cars.

My objections to the editorial are many but I will only highlight a few and I will do so with facts that will support my arguments. With all due respect to our journalism educated editorial team, very little journalism went into the writing of this editorial.

In the first paragraph, the column speaks of no one being willing to speak up against the project. I have attended numerous small and large group meetings that were advertised profusely. A number of the Daily Citizen reporters attended many of these presentations given by the project team working on the study. In most of these meetings, the attendees seemed genuinely interested in the possibilities that high-speed rail could deliver. In only one meeting did I hear of one possible objector who seemed only concerned with how the project would impact his property.

The next objection raised in the editorial speaks to the fact that a cost-benefit analysis has not been completed that illustrates how a Chattanooga to Atlanta line would benefit Georgia. Although I am not able to provide detail information to counter this claim, I have seen information that illustrates that ridership and revenue projections from potential riders has been included in the studies thus far.

I would ask this question – can you measure the positive impact of removing 10, 15, or even 20 percent of the single passenger vehicles traveling from Chattanooga to Atlanta from the congestion of I-75? I think so. I traveled through the heart of downtown Atlanta a few Sundays ago at approximately 6pm returning from South Georgia. I felt like a NASCAR driver. All lanes were bumper to bumper moving at 55-65 mph. To my knowledge there was not any construction nor accidents – just more traffic than the road capacity could handle. This was on a Sunday!

The road network in and around Atlanta is overloaded. There is not any remaining capacity and (in my humble opinion) minimal options for capacity expansion. Only through investments in and the expansion of mass transit options will the transportation capacity of the Atlanta region improve.

Another reference by the editorial says millions of dollars have been spent studying this corridor project. When I asked if they knew the real number – the answer was no. Again, I would understand a letter to the editor from a citizen not knowing the facts, but the editorial board comprised of journalist?

In fact, the project thus far has cost approximately $12 million dollars. Most of which has come from the US Federal Highway Administration using federal highway funds that we all pay for maintaining and improving our transportation system. The local match has come from the City of Chattanooga, the Atlanta Regional Commission, and the Cumberland Improvement District (special tax district in Cobb County).

Georgia has invested very little on this project for two reasons. First, until recently our GDOT could not spend money on any transportation mode except roads and bridges. And second, the elected leadership of our state was not supportive except for Senator Jeff Mullis and Senator Doug Stoner. Just recently Georgia changed GDOTs mission that now allows them to study, maintain, and improve all of Georgia’s Transportation system.

When / if this project gets built, the estimated cost is projected to be between $5 Billion and $10 Billion. Unless you work for the federal government or are an elected federal official, that is a lot of money. The studies so far have cost approximately $12 million. And let’s say $38 million more will be required in final studies / design work. If you spend $50 million on a project that will be built at a cost of $10 billion, that is a 1 to 200 ratio or one-half of one percent.

To put this in prospective, typical architectural costs for a building can run 5-10% of the cost of the building. Or consider the recent admission by the federal government that the “virtual fence” on the border with Mexico is not working and it has already cost us $50 billion. The 5th runway at the Atlanta airport reportedly cost $5 billion.

Again, with all due respect for the editorial board of the Daily Citizen, I respectfully disagree with their position and premise. If we are ever going to reduce our country’s addiction to oil, we have to think and act differently. In one change of habit, one change of transportation mode, we bolster our efforts to make US companies more profitable while simultaneously reducing the money we send to our enemies.

A High-Speed MAGLEV train using a steel and concrete girder system can be built right here creating jobs. It is powered by electricity that Georgia Power and TVA can supply from nuclear energy through their power distribution entities and our own Dalton Utilities. And some percentage of cars will be removed off the I-75 corridor that is at or above capacity. I see this as an economic development, environmental stewardship, and national security issue.

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