- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 22, 2002

Southeastern state transportation and business leaders announced a business plan yesterday for a high-speed rail line stretching from Washington through Richmond, Charlotte, N.C., and southwest to Atlanta.
Although a 110-mph train through the Southeast has been discussed for years, the regional model announced yesterday at a passenger rail summit in Atlanta was the first using market studies to show it could be successful.
The first segment, between Washington and Richmond, is planned to begin operating as soon as 2010.
The state-funded studies say the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor could pay its own operating costs if it attracted 2 million riders per year.
"That's good news for the federal government because it's not somebody looking for an ongoing subsidy," said Rep. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican.
Mr. Isakson, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, attended the Atlanta conference with transportation officials from six states and representatives from 14 chambers of commerce.
He said the business plan has "good merit," but added, "There's a lot of due diligence that needs to be done before you get to the issue of whether you're federally funded."
The next step is a feasibility study. Mr. Isakson encouraged the local officials to seek federal funding for the study in the 2004 budget. States also would need to secure local matching funds, he said.
Virginia transportation officials have said their market studies show public support is strong enough to come up with state funds for a high-speed rail line between Washington and Richmond. They also have been negotiating with North Carolina transportation officials for an extension to Charlotte.
"After the initial investment, it would return money into the till," said Lyndo Tippett, North Carolina transportation secretary. "For each dollar invested, we would get back $2.54."
The economic return includes new jobs, reduced highway and aviation congestion, and more customers for businesses near rail stations.
The states' business plan says the rail line would cost an average of $5.5 million per mile. The Washington-to-Charlotte line would cost about $700 million, Mr. Tippett said.
If grade crossings could be eliminated by building overpasses and tunnels, train speeds could be increased to operate more like France's 170 mph TGV train, Mr. Tippett said.
Most of the 2 million riders needed for a successful high-speed line through the Southeast would commute between Washington and Richmond, the studies showed. A smaller but still significant number of them would continue on to Charlotte.
Unlike the federally operated Amtrak, the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor would be run by participating states, which would contract daily operations to private companies. If it could pay its own costs, it would avoid the federal subsidies that have ensnared Amtrak.
However, the system depends on support from Congress for the $5.3 billion needed to build it. Continuing expenses of fuel, employee salaries and maintenance would be paid through fare revenue, said transportation officials at the meeting in Atlanta.
Rep. Jack Quinn, New York Republican, urged business and state leaders at the Atlanta conference to continue pursuing the project. Mr. Quinn is chairman of the House Transportation railroads subcommittee.
The business plan also showed that the environmental impact would be small because the trains would operate largely on existing freight rail tracks. The tracks are owned by Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX Transportation and Norfolk-based Norfolk Southern Railway.
"What you would do is hopefully strike a cooperative agreement with the freight-rail operators," said Milton H. Jones Jr., president of the Georgia division of Bank of America.
The agreement would require modifications to tracks that include sidings to allow slower freight trains to pull onto separate rail lanes as faster passenger trains pass. In addition, more overpasses would be needed to avoid the most dangerous grade crossings.
"I believe what it boils down to is we have to use modern-age logistics," Mr. Jones said. "We don't want freight interrupted, but I do believe we have an opportunity to leverage infrastructure."
The freight railroads are taking a cautious wait-and-see attitude toward any agreements to share track.
"Those are not public rights of way," said Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, a trade group for major railroads. "We do feel very strongly that any passenger developments cannot interfere with freight traffic. The rail freight system is a very essential one for the nation's economy and you simply cannot ignore that fact."

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