Local funds in place for Chattanooga-Atlanta rail plan

By Judy Walton

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

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It took close to three years, but matching money finally is in place for a federal grant to help advance the proposed Chattanooga-to-Atlanta high-speed rail project.

“This is the first time I’ve been able to stand before a group and say, as of this time, we have that matching money,” Joe Ferguson, who heads the rapid rail initiative for Chattanooga’s Enterprise Center, told local officials Tuesday.

The $3.3 million local match will draw down a $13.8 million maglev grant for the Georgia Department of Transportation. The money will be spent to speed up the environmental assessment and study routes and the location and design of stations for the rail line.

Ferguson told the executive committee of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County/North Georgia Transportation Planning Organization that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told him recently that the money should still be available despite federal withholding of some money because of budget shortfalls, a move known as “recision.”

Georgia applied for the grant in December 2008, but assembling the local match proved a stumbling block when North Georgia counties along or close to the possible Interstate 75 route said they couldn’t afford to contribute.

The initial plan called for Chattanooga, Atlanta and North Georgia to put in one-third of the match. In the end, the Georgia Department of Transportation kicked in $1.5 million and Chattanooga gave $1.3 million. The Tennessee Department of Transportation and Atlanta contributed $250,000 apiece to fill the pot, Ferguson said.

He said a group of Atlanta property owners called the Cumberland Community Improvement District has given $875,000, the first private investment in the project.

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said in a telephone interview the delay wasn’t unexpected, given the economic squeeze most local governments are experiencing.

“We knew going in it was a long-term project,” he said, but making that connection to Atlanta will benefit the region for decades.

The dream is a high-speed rail network linking Chattanooga and Atlanta then northward to O’Hare Airport in Chicago and southward to Savannah, Ga.

Ferguson said some of the maglev grant money could be used on corridor presentation and possibly on developing a multistate rail authority now that Kentucky has expressed interest in the project.

The “linchpin” of the project is the Chattanooga-Atlanta line, but a recent feasibility study by the Arcadis engineering group found “no environmental showstoppers” in the Chattanooga-Nashville leg.

Chattanooga resident Stephen Harper, who was in the audience Tuesday, questioned Ferguson about the route and equipment for the high-speed rail link. He asked if the planners had considered a route along U.S. Highway 27 rather than I-75, saying it would cost less and serve more local residents.

He also asked whether steel-wheel trains such as the TGV in France have been considered alongside the much more expensive magnetic levitation technology.

Ferguson said those questions are part of the draft environmental study now under way and that no decisions have been made. But he said that, of 17 routes studied, the I-75 corridor is the top choice to date.

Afterward, Harper said the project planners aren’t adequately considering local needs.

“People call us the Choo-Choo city all over the world and we don’t have a passenger rail station,” Harper said. “We need to plan.”

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