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Tom Sabulis

Columbus on the move

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Moderated by Tom Sabulis

We look south to Columbus today to see how transportation options are viewed in the state’s second largest city. In her first column for us, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson endorses adding Georgia’s first high-speed passenger rail line between her city and Atlanta. In our second column, Columbus’ city manager writes about the road improvements the area is reaping by being one of the three regions in the state to pass the TSPLOST penny sales tax in 2012.

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Let’s start with Columbus line to Atlanta

By Teresa Pike Tomlinson

In 2030, you will be able to ride high speed passenger rail from Columbus, Georgia to Atlanta for $41 one-way. That’s what the 2014 Columbus to Atlanta High Speed Rail Feasibility Study shows.

According to the study, the ride will take approximately 60 minutes with one stop in Newnan. The electrified train will have travel speeds up to 220 mph. The 91 miles of rail will stretch along existing right-of-way on I-85 and I-185 between the two cities. The rail line, including stations and six electric trains, will cost $3.9 billion, with a generous 30% contingency. This cost is comparable to other major mass transit projects at $42.5 million per mile.

The rail line is expected to accommodate 1.1 million riders in its first year of operation. Its first year profitability ratio is expected to be 1.21, meaning that its $23.6 million anticipated annual revenue stream will off-set its $19.5 million annual maintenance and operations costs. This profitability ratio is expected to grow each year to an estimated 1.34 in 2040 and 1.5 in 2050. Such a rail line would create a minimum of 11,000 jobs.

This is a viable concept conceived by the Columbus, Georgia Commission on High Speed Passenger Rail led by co-chairs State Representative Calvin Smyre and attorney Edward Hudson and made up of business and civic leaders, transportation representatives, and other citizen stakeholders. For two years this group has met, hiring the national rail planning firm of HNTB to perform a feasibility study consistent with Federal Rail Administration criteria. That study found the foregoing rail opportunity to be feasible and worthy of an implementation strategy.

Could the Columbus-Atlanta line be Georgia’s first high speed passenger rail? Yes, it could, and it should be.

This is not your father’s Amtrak. This line could be privately run given its potential for sustained annual profit. It could be financed through public/private ventures to include federal TIGER grants, multi-modal funding, transportation bonds, commercial loans, and/or future TSPLOST monies. We are not talking about a rail line that is dependent on the sale of tickets to the causal weekend tourist going to Atlanta for a Braves game or to Columbus for world-class whitewater rafting. We are talking about connecting all of the economic resources of the state’s largest city with those of its second largest city, and having the benefit of two separate infrastructure grids to support that expansion.

We would be linking some 202,000 Columbus residents, one of the nation’s largest military training bases (Ft. Benning Maneuver Center of Excellence), the Aflac and TSYS international headquarters, as well as other Columbus economic interests with those of Atlanta. We would be connecting Georgia State University with Columbus State University, Emory University Hospital with southwest Georgia’s Regional Medical Center, and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport with the Columbus Airport, possibly increasing capacity for both.

The pitch to the Federal Railroad Administration is that the nation needs to invest in the Columbus-Atlanta high speed rail line because: 1) it is projected to be profitable; 2) it is less costly to construct than most; 3) the right-of-way is largely in hand; and 4) there are no passenger/freight shared rail issues with Norfolk Southern and CSX. In addition, Georgia has a little known asset, which could make all of this particularly viable.

Georgia has a Rail Passenger Authority – it’s just not active or funded. The authority was created in 1985. It has broad powers to execute contracts for planning, designing, constructing, financing, and operating passenger rail projects. The authority may issue bond financing for rail projects and coordinate partnerships with state and local governments. Governor Zell Miller appointed the first authority members in 1994, but the authority lost funding in 2005, and no one can remember the last appointee. Yet, with the nomination of a few folks knowledgeable about the subject, Georgia would be poised to be among the leading states in the country on high speed passenger rail, and Columbus and Atlanta would be among the nation’s leading intra-state passenger rail cities.

High speed rail links cities into integrated regions that function as a single stronger economy. It broadens labor markets and offers workers a wider network of employers. Rail encourages technology clusters with fast, easy access between locations and expands tourism markets. This viable concept of high speed passenger rail is an antidote to the sluggish economic recovery the state has endured. It is the next leg in our journey to economic growth for the entire state.

Teresa Pike Tomlinson is mayor of Columbus, Georgia.

How TSPLOST is working for us

By Isaiah Hugley

In Columbus, Georgia we voted yes to impose a dedicated tax on ourselves in a bold move to insure that local transportation needs that were long range will be met now.

Over the next ten years, the landscape of Columbus will change as a result of the TSPLOST vote. Eight new transportation projects will be designed and built, while over $250 million in infrastructure and capital projects will be invested. Another $30 million will be collected for discretionary use.

The results will be relief from congestion; improved safety conditions at major intersections; and the opportunity for further economic growth. All because the residents of Columbus and 15 neighboring counties said yes, and because of the power of a penny.

For too long projects in Columbus were planned, only to see them sit on a shelf due to lack of funding. Traditional state and federal funding sources have become less reliable. Depending upon others to help solve our transportation issues is no longer an option. In the meantime, our transportation needs continue to grow.

Beyond transportation improvements, the eight projects will provide economic benefits. Construction jobs will be created. There is also that potential to unlock areas of our community to new planned growth, while promoting job opportunities.

Case in point is the construction of a new interchange at state route 520 and I-185, immediately adjacent to Fort Benning. While the property is within our city limits, it is inaccessible for basic city services, such as police, fire and sanitation. Developing this project will allow us to provide that access, while developing the site as a business park for military contractors and others.

Another example is the potential construction of a new interchange on I-185 at Cusseta Road. This section of the community is isolated from major transportation routes. By providing access, underutilized industrial land will be given the chance for growth and job development.

Our TSPLOST program also addresses the problems of congestion and the need for safety.

For years, the eastern section of the community along Buena Vista Road finds itself cutoff from the rest of the city, multiple times daily, when trains cross this roadway. This makes it difficult for citizens trying to get to and from work; when deliveries to businesses are delayed; and when there is a life or death situation and the need for emergency services. The TSPLOST enables us to correct this inconvenience now instead of later. The same can be said for congestion at Buena Vista Road and I-185, which causes unnecessary delays and frustration. The TSPLOST allows us to promote better traffic flow through this area.

Recreation and tourism also will be enhanced, as we connect the final piece of our Riverwalk. It will give us new recreational opportunities, complement our whitewater efforts and open up areas for redevelopment. Already, master plans are underway to revitalize an area known as City Village, which lies just north of Uptown along the river. In south Columbus, the construction of a two-and-a-half mile rails-to-trails project will promote walking, jogging and biking.

Last, and certainly not least, for the first time in 30 years we will reassess our transit system and its future needs. It is our desire to develop a transit system that serves all the needs of our citizens. In the long term, this may be the most important transportation project we do. TSPOST approval has accelerated our transportation efforts tremendously. What we are able to do right now to further improve our transportation system would have taken decades to complete without TSPLOST revenue.

In the end, our residents simply understood, based on the economic times we live in today, that Columbus could not afford to wait for others to come to our aid. We needed to do it ourselves and we needed to do it now. So, we took advantage of the power of a penny.

Isaiah Hugley is city manager for Columbus, Georgia.

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