Originally created 11/09/99

Officials tout bonds to build high-speed railway



Georgia politicians are working together to push legislation aimed at allowing Amtrak to raise money for construction of high-speed rail lines with the hopes of spurring development within the state.

Amtrak, the government-subsidized corporation that operates the nation's network of passenger trains, has never had a continuing source of development funds such as those allocated to building highways and airports. But under legislation introduced Oct. 28, it would be authorized to sell $10 billion in high-speed rail bonds from the year 2001 to 2010 to finance the growth of a high-speed rail.

The bill, co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, authorizes Amtrak to spend the money upgrading existing routes to high-speed rail, upgrading existing high-speed rail corridors and buying high-speed rail equipment for proposed corridors.

The corridors include two in Georgia -- Amtrak's existing Southeastern Corridor route from Washington to Jacksonville, Fla., and a proposed new Amtrak route that would go from Atlanta to Macon. Eventually, the Atlanta-Macon route would be extended on to Savannah as part of the state's proposed intercity railroad line.

Mr. Cleland said host states such as Georgia will be asked to match at least 20 percent of the costs Amtrak incurs making the improvements. The funds would be set aside in escrow accounts to guarantee repayment of the bonds.

Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes has become an outspoken supporter of high-speed rail as a solution to the worsening traffic problems of the Atlanta area and the need for economic revitalization of rural areas in rural South Georgia.

"We're going to get some stuff moving," said Arthur Vaughn, executive director of the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority, which has submitted a budget request to the governor for high-speed rail in preparation for the January legislative session.

No firm timetable exists for inaugurating the high-speed service. However, Mr. Vaughn said high-speed rail won't be of any benefit to Georgia until it has first been extended through Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina because the service won't have many riders until it has connecting destinations. Amtrak is poised to announce the rollout of its first high-speed rail passenger service early next year in its Northeast Corridor from Washington to Boston. The electric trains will be able to travel at speeds up to 150 mph. A trip from Washington to New York on the train would become only two hours, 45 minutes.

Speedier trains would make rail a more attractive alternative to airlines for short trips, according to Scott Leonard, assistant director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a group advocating improved rail service.

"The three-hour trip is sort of a threshold for travelers considering using the train for a business trip," Mr. Leonard said. "You would see more people taking short trips to places like Jacksonville and Columbia."