High-Speed Rail from Atlanta? Transit Projects Offer Planning Opportunities

RTAblog_2013_0610_HighSpeedTrainThe Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) is studying six possible routes for high-speed rail between Atlanta and Charlotte, NC. The routes are make-or-break for towns along the way. In addition to encouraging land speculation, the potential routes are a great opportunity to plan ahead for a range of other connections to the high-speed line.

Atlanta has a long history with transit that’s relatively unknown to many Atlantans even though it influences our daily lives. Atlanta was founded at the intersection of two railroad tracks in 1837. You can still visit the site, now known as Underground Atlanta. Atlanta still has large rail yards on its west side and sees a significant amount of rail traffic. Despite it’s heritage, Atlanta offers two critically important lessons about transit.

Atlanta is home to the world’s busiest airport: most passenger traffic each year since 1998 and the most flights (take-offs and landings) since 2005. The airport is one of the most significant economic engines in the southeastern United States. In addition to the revenue it generates, it enables an incredible amount of commerce and business travel… and it was almost never built.

The lesson of Atlanta’s airport is that William B. Hartsfield and others fought diligently against public opinion to create the airport on the site of  The Atlanta Speedway, an abandoned racetrack. Hartsfield and others had the foresight to realize the importance of mail delivery by airplane – and understood that passenger travel would follow. Hartsfield knew that the new means of transit would distinguish Atlanta from other cities in the area.

The second lesson is Atlanta’s Multi-Modal Passenger Terminal (MMPT). For years (decades), the city has contemplated an MMPT to connect modes of transportation so people arriving by train and plane could have access to local transit like light-rail and buses to reach their final destinations without having to hire a taxi and endure Atlanta traffic. Atlanta’s failure to plan points of connection for the various modes of transportation has allowed the city to grow in such a way that it’s now difficult to connect the modes of transit. That means Atlanta will be less competitive against cities who have planned MMPTs that reduce travel time for their users.

Each of the towns noted on the chosen route will have the potential for MMPTs and|or construction around their train station. Please click on the map below if you’d like to open a larger view of the six routes of the GDOT study in a new window.


We don’t know if high-speed rail can be self-sustaining. If there’s a benefit to a poorly performing economy, it’s that we have to re-asses our priorities and determine what investments of taxpayer funds are worthwhile. That seems to be one of the key struggles for high-speed rail relative to the current cost of air travel.

We also don’t know if a high-speed rail line from Atlanta to Charlotte will ever be constructed. It seems that many cities are commissioning studies to position themselves for federal DOT grants and possible assistance with construction funding. Still, it’s important for cities along the possible routes to engage in some high-level (schematic) planning exercises to get some sense of what a local stop could mean for their municipality. You can be sure that private speculators are doing the same thing.

Transit has an impact on everything from traffic to architecture. Most governments have a future land use map that plans decades into the future. State DOTs may be planning fifty years into the future. If you’d like to get started with a planning exercise, collect those maps, add information like new transit routes and find someone who can draw (like an architect) to document your concerns|decisions. You might be surprised how much attention your effort attracts.

As always, please leave a comment below to let us know your thoughts!

First image by billy1125 used under creative commons license. Map from GDOT.

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