Chattanooga Could Spell Disaster for High-Speed Rail in the Southeast

It seems like every few years we are presented with potential routes for high-speed rail (HSR) between Atlanta and some regional city. One year it’s Charlotte, the next it’s Savannah, and now it’s Chattanooga. Last month the Georgia Department of Transportation identified three possible routes for HSR between the two cities with the most viable route being along I-75. It’s hard to take any of these proposals seriously as sources of funding are always an obstacle, but a future Southeast HSR network should eventually include all three of those cities.

But what cities should be connected first? Does spending billions of dollars to connect Atlanta to Chattanooga, a relatively small city, make sense as an initial endeavor into high-speed rail?

There’s little question that we need to diversify and upgrade our transportation infrastructure. While other industrialized countries have been forging ahead with HSR for several decades now, the United States has largely pursued the combination of promoting highways over all other transportation while also refusing to raise the money needed to build anything useful. As the chart below shows, since 1960 public expenditures in the United States for highways have far outpaced expenditures for mass transit and rail, though the disparity between the two has been falling.


High-speed rail can be a viable transportation option when large population centers are far enough apart for car travel to be too long but close enough together to compete with air travel times and costs. Rail is much more practical option in European countries and Japan due to the combination of smaller geographical areas and stronger federal governments. In the United States, connecting two large cities by rail requires the cooperation of state and local governments as well as backing from the federal government. This has largely meant that the most politically-viable HSR projects are one’s that can be operated within the boundaries of one state; Florida, California, and Texas all have several large cities that could be good options for HSR.

Atlanta to Chattanooga HSR meets the political test since almost the entirety of the line will be in Georgia, but is Chattanooga really the best option for an initial HSR line in the Southeast? While it’s certainly a beautiful and exciting city, it has a metro area population of less than 600,000 people. Compare that to California’s current HSR project to connect Los Angeles (13 million people) and San Francisco (5 million people) and to Texas’ once proposed HSR line to connect Houston (6.5 million people) and Dallas-Fort Worth (7 million people).

Chattanooga’s close proximity to Atlanta and the ability to use existing rights-of-way would make it a relatively cheap HSR line ($8.7 billion), but that also means tickets would have to be pretty inexpensive to compete with the under two hour drive between the two cities. The proposed route along I-75 would only shave a half-hour off the drive time and estimates put initial annual ridership at around 4 million people.


Chattanooga, TN via Wikipedia

That compares to the California HSR project estimate of 18 to 30 million riders in the initial years. Operators of that rail system project tickets to be between $80 and $100; 15 to 20 percent below the average airfare between L.A. and San Francisco, but about 40 percent more than average fuel costs to drive between the two cities. At $.20 per mile, the system would be one the cheapest HSR lines in the world. California law requires the project to operate without taxpayer subsidies (unlike highway projects) and many experts project the system to be profitable within the first few years of operation. For the Atlanta-Chattanooga line to match the per-mile cost of the L.A.-San Francisco line, the average ticket would have to be $24. This seems like an unlikely figure.

High-speed rail backers in the Southeast need to avoid another Atlanta streetcar situation. While both a streetcar and HSR can be great investments, a poorly chosen initial line that results in low ridership numbers would only work to reinforce negative thoughts about the mode of transportation. An Atlanta-Chattanooga HSR line that spirals to $12 billion in construction costs and then posts meager ridership numbers could be a dramatic setback in the movement to get a larger and more successful Southeastern HSR network.

Perhaps we should focus our energy on the Atlanta to Charlotte line that was proposed a couple years ago. This would require much more political cooperation as it would involve three states, but it would connect Atlanta to one of the largest and fastest growing metro areas in the Southeast. The 3.5 hour drive between the two cities would also make HSR a strong alternative to driving and flying. Greenville, South Carolina, a city with a metro area population similar to Chattanooga’s would be one stop on the route.

While the Atlanta-Chattanooga line would be cheaper and could probably be completed faster than an Atlanta-Charlotte line, the latter makes more sense. Spending $9 billion on a rail line to connect a relatively small city to Atlanta could have huge negative implications for future HSR lines if it is viewed as a failure by the public. As Atlanta and Charlotte are two large, fast-growing cities, any initial ridership or financial failures could be overcome with more ease than similar failures involving Chattanooga. An Atlanta-Chattanooga line may, therefore, be better suited as an expansion line to an already vibrant system connecting the largest economies and population centers of the region.

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