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High-speed rail could link Charlotte to Atlanta in 2 hours. Have your say next week.

A rendering of the planned Gateway Station.
A rendering of the planned Gateway Station.

A federal agency will seek public comment next week on development of a high-speed rail line to Atlanta that would start at the Gateway Station transportation hub now under construction in uptown Charlotte.

The Charlotte-to-Atlanta portion of the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor would not be in use for years, largely because it has no federal or state construction funding. The three alternative routes under consideration have estimated costs of between $2 billion and $15 billion.

But the prospect is tantalizing: Rail could someday connect Charlotte and Atlanta at speeds of up to 220 mph and in as little as two hours’ travel time, a recent study found. Drive time between the cities on Interstate 85 typically takes more than four hours.

The full corridor would run from Washington, D.C., through Richmond, Va., Raleigh and Charlotte to Atlanta.

The Federal Railroad Administration and the Georgia Department of Transportation will hold public meetings in Charlotte, Greenville, S.C., and Atlanta next week on a draft environmental study that will lead to selection of the Charlotte-to-Atlanta portion of the route.

Jason Orthner, rail division director at the N.C. Department of Transportation, compared building the proposed network of high-speed rail corridors across the country to the beginnings of the interstate highway system in the 1950s.

“Completing the environmental documents for a project like this is a key step in competing for federal discretionary grants,” he said.

The cheapest of the three alternative routes, at an estimated $2 billion to $2.3 billion, would use Amtrak’s existing Crescent route on Norfolk Southern right-of-way. It would also be the slowest of the three and draw the fewest passengers.

Trains on that route would run at 79 to 110 mph, according to the environmental study, and take four-and-a-half to five-and-a-half hours to reach Atlanta. The maximum speed of Amtrak’s Crescent is 79 mph, Orther said.

An alternative route, new tracks running beside I-85, would cost $13.3 billion to $15.4 billion. Trains would go 125 to 180 mph and take less than three hours to reach Atlanta.

A third option is to create a new corridor at a cost of $6.2 billion to $8.4 billion. It would whisk passengers along at 125 to 220 mph and get them to Atlanta in as little as two hours. The route would also lure up to 6.3 million passengers a year by 2030, the most of the three alternatives.

The Charlotte meeting will be Thursday from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Metrolina Transportation Management Center, 2327 Tipton Dr. Comments can also be filed online.

Bruce Henderson writes about transportation, emerging issues and interesting people for The Charlotte Observer. His reporting background is in covering energy, environment and state news.
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