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Atlanta-Savannah is not Suitable for HSR

Baruch Feigenbaum
November 15, 2012, 4:32pm

Many in the transportation community have worked hard to derail ill-conceived High-Speed-Rail (HSR) projects. Transportation policy experts have suggested focusing first on the corridor with the best potential in the U.S.—the Northeast Corridor between Washington DC and Boston. Transportation types have explained that using current congestion figures for road and air are incorrect because the Next Generation Aviation system will safely allow more airplane travel and that widened highways and managed lanes will reduce highway delays. We have pointed out that due to the great recession long-distance holiday and vacation travel has declined. For example in 2005, 58,600,000 people traveled during Thanksgiving weekend. In 2012, only 43,600,000 people are forecasted to travel--a decline of 26%. While travel will rebound, in the near term intercity capacity needs have been sharply reduced. We have explained the many differences between European cities and American cities such as central city density and the quality and quantity of transit systems. However, despite all of the facts that transportation professionals present, some HSR advocates continue to live in the delusion zone. 

After announcing he would not be seeking a post in the Obama Administration, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed stated that he has two transportation priorities for the city of Atlanta. One is the Atlanta BeltLine—the transit line that got panned by American Public Transit Administration President William Millar. The second is a proposed high-speed rail line between Atlanta and Savannah. 

What are the problems with HSR between Atlanta and Savannah?

1) HSR works best in countries with favorable density patterns and excellent transit systems neither of which describe Atlanta or Savannah. But not one of these countries has built or is considering building a HSR line that begins or ends in a metro area with fewer than 500,000 people. While Atlanta has more than 5,000,000 people, Savannah has only 347,000.

2) High-speed rail works best in metro areas with well-developed transit systems. Atlanta’s transit system leaves much to be desired and all of Chatham County has only 28 bus routes.

3) HSR works best in cities with dense populations closest to the HSR station. New York City has 520,000 people living within 2 miles of Grand Central Station and 1,070,000 working with 2 miles of Grand Central Station. Washington D.C. has 140,000 people living within 2 miles of Union Station and 300,000 people working within 2 miles of the station. Atlanta has 70,000 people living within 2 miles of the proposed Gulch transit station and 80,000 working in that same vicinity. Savannah has substantially fewer people both living and working in the 2-mile radius than Atlanta.

4) After HSR lines are built, somebody has to pay the costs needed to operate them. The federal government has offered only capital assistance to build the trains leaving state or local governments to operate them. Since a proposed line between Atlanta and Savannah would lose money on operating costs even with ticket prices at $150 for a one-way trip, taxpayers throughout Georgia would have to pay a significant portion of their taxes to operate the line.

5) HSR trains need tracks to operate. Norfolk-Southern has freight tracks from Atlanta to Macon and Macon to Savannah but many portions of these tracks have top speeds of 25 miles per hour or less. Further, since Norfolk-Southern owns the rail, it must approve passenger trains using them. Since taking a passenger train trip to Savannah on these existing tracks would take longer than driving, new tracks would have to be built. The complete costs of building such a system are estimated to reach $35 billion dollars.

6) Taking HSR rail between most European and Asian cities is more expensive than flying. A round trip non-stop flight from Savannah to Atlanta costs $250. HSR train travel would cost $300.

7) HSR service faces real security threats. If popularity of HSR improves, so will its vulnerability to terrorism. A 200+ mile per hour train is as tempting a target as 500+ mph plane. A Substantial security system will be needed. 

Pro HSR group America 2050 chose the best 100 routes in the nation; Atlanta-Savannah was not on the list. While Atlanta, Charlotte and Birmingham lies in the Piedmont Atlanta megaregion of interconnected economic activity, Savannah does not lie in any megaregion. It is freight not passengers that primarily travels between the two cities. Atlanta residents alone traveling to Tybee Island will not support an HSR line.   

While consultants determined HSR routes including Atlanta-Charlotte, Atlanta-Jacksonville, Atlanta-Birmingham, and Atlanta-Louisville may be realistic in the future, none are realistic today. Substantial land-use and development patterns will need to change. And Atlanta-Savannah is a worse candidate than any of the studied HSR lines. 

State, federal and local governments could find better uses for $35 billion. Returning the funds to taxpayers may be the best option. Atlanta is fortunate to have a mayor interested in solving its transportation problems. But he needs to start with some realistic and less grandiose plans than High Speed Rail and the BeltLine.


Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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