published Sunday, April 24th, 2011

City bypasses new round of federal rail funding

RAIL STUDY FUNDS

The next study phase for the estimated $4 billion Chattanooga-to-Atlanta high-speed rail route will include:

• $13.8 million from the federal government, appropriated in fiscal 2010

• $1.5 million from the Georgia Department of Transportation

• $1.3 million from Chattanooga

• $500,00 pledged but not appropriated from Atlanta

Other funds could include:

• $250,000 tentatively pledged from the Tennessee Department of Transportation

• $450,000 from other local government and private sources

Source: U.S. Federal Railroad Administration, Georgia Department of Transportation

Two dozen states lined up this month to request federal aid spurned by other states for high-speed rail, but the proposed Atlanta-to-Chattanooga line was not among the projects vying for Uncle Sam’s help.

Georgia’s Department of Transportation is trying to get money for a new Amtrak station in Atlanta, and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said the Volunteer State simply wasn’t ready to compete for more federal dollars for a high-speed rail leg in Tennessee.

“I would question in this current federal tax environment whether a whole lot will happen with high-speed rail,” Haslam said last week. “To apply for this money, you would have to have a lot of the work in process and we didn’t have that done yet.”

Twenty-four states angled for a share of $1.2 billion that became available after governors in Florida and Wisconsin rejected federal funds for previously approved high-speed rail projects.

But Chattanooga high-speed rail backers insist their plans still are moving, if slowly.

“I always thought this would be a long-term project, but I have no doubt that there will be a high-speed rail network throughout the United States and it’s very important that Chattanooga be a part of that,” said Mayor Ron Littlefield, a longtime supporter and former consultant for the project here.

“This country cannot go forward into the future as a leading nation with just two ways of moving people — highway and air. We saw the weakness of that on 9/11,” he said.

“And the United States can’t ignore the investments that every other developed and many developing countries are making in high-speed rail.”

Littlefield recalled that when interstate highways were laid out in the 1950s, Mayor Rudy Olgiati worked to make sure those highways went through Chattanooga.

“This is the first time that we’ve had an administration in office that is as committed to high-speed rail as the Obama administration is and we need to make sure we are a part of these routes,” Littlefield said.

Divided government

But perhaps no issue is dividing deficit-cutting Republicans from the Obama White House more than spending on high-speed rail.

The Obama administration has proposed spending $53 billion on high-speed rail across the country, including $10.5 billion in fiscal 2012. But the Republican-led House of Representatives is resisting.

With the backing of local GOP Reps. Chuck Fleisch-mann and Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee and Tom Graves of Georgia, the House voted in February to cut any funding for high-speed rail while slashing $60 billion in federal spending. Last week’s budget compromise restored half that funding for fiscal 2011.

Graves said the high-speed rail project proposed through his congressional district is too costly to pursue at this time.

“If we’re going to get this nation back on track in a fiscally responsible manner, then we’ve got to stop spending,” he said.

Rail Study funding

Local backers still need to raise the rest of a $2.75 million match for $13.8 million already appropriated for study of the Atlanta-to-Chattanooga rail route.

Joe Ferguson, director of special projects for the Chattanooga Enterprise Center and Chattanooga’s lead consultant for high-speed rail, said Federal Railroad Administration officials assured him last week that the latest round of budget cuts won’t jeopardize that study money.

“We don’t know what the mood will ultimately be in Washington,” said Ferguson. “But we know that we have a true high-speed rail project and we’re well into getting the funding for and completing the environmental work required, so we should be positioned once decisions are made to move forward.”

The proposed route along Interstate 75 would use magnetic levitation trains. It is similar to those used in Europe and China and is likely to cost about $4 billion, Ferguson said.

He and others have said the train could allow Chattanooga’s Lovell Field to provide relief for Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport, the world’s busiest.

“Right now, we need to raise the rest of our local match and complete this latest environmental assessment so that we are positioned for the future,” Ferguson said.

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