'Chatlanta' looks beyond congestion, sprawl

June 22, 1998|By Neal R. Peirce

CAN REGIONS collaborate to devise better futures than congestion plagued roads and uncontrolled sprawl?

The communities of "Chatlanta," the fast-developing 115-mile corridor along Interstate 75 from Atlanta, Ga., to Chattanooga, Tenn., believe so.

Instead of waiting for the asphalt-minded Georgia and Tennessee transportation departments to come up with their familiar roads-and-more-roads formula, the Chattanooga and Atlanta regions are agitating for an intriguing 21st century alternative.

Bullet trains

Their idea: Bullet trains serving not just the city centers and the fast-urbanizing growth corridor, but their airports, too. The underutilized Chattanooga airport, for example, could become a reliever for Atlanta's traffic-drowned Hartsfield International.

As expensive as it is, high-speed rail can replace short-distance air trips and eliminate -- in Atlanta's case -- the cost of a $6 billion to $9 billion airport expansion.

That's the dream, in any event, of civic visionary David Crockett, Chattanooga City Council president. And of Harry West, known for his broad community outreach as director of the Atlanta Regional Council. The two have been looking first for ways their regions could work together creatively.

Their first big idea was high-speed rail. Planned right, it wouldn't just connect Atlanta and Chattanooga and such in-between growth centers as Marietta and Dalton, but would siphon as many as 5 million airline passengers yearly off north Georgia's packed roads and to the easily expandable Chattanooga airport.

Potent allies were soon attracted, including Cobb County (Ga.) Commissioner Bill Byrne and Gwinnett County (Ga.) Commission President Wayne Hill.

On a parallel track, Chattanooga's Jim Frierson, now chair of the Tennessee World Trade Center, spearheaded an effort to focus Atlanta and national policy-makers on the strange effects of airline deregulation. It has resulted, he argued, in disastrous decline in service to smaller cities like Chattanooga, while big ones like Atlanta choke on soaring demand.

"We knew we were just a small hound, dealing with Atlanta," says Mr. Crockett. "So what we pitched was Atlanta the 'Terminus of the South' -- its historic start as a regional railhead, then an aggressive air center and interstate hub. We argued the bullet train would be a first link of a parallel 21st century transportation grid."

The line to Chattanooga could be extended later along Tennessee's "technology corridor" to Oak Ridge and Knoxville, maybe even Nashville. Or complemented with a line eastward along the spine of the Piedmont, connecting Atlanta to Charlotte, America's most vital new financial center with the NationsBank/BankAmerica merger. Or perhaps be extended to Florida with an Atlanta-Macon-Orlando or Tampa link.

Pretty soon the Chatlanta rail proposal had important Capitol Hill support from House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn. Result: The new federal transportation bill includes $5 million to start a full-scale feasibility study.

None of this guarantees this Chattanooga choo-choo will become a reality. Delta Airlines, a powerful presence in Atlanta, withdrew earlier from Chattanooga and is cool to the proposal. Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell is reportedly skeptical.

Ties of commerce, culture

But Harry West reminds Georgia skeptics that if the state line were moved 10 miles north, Chattanooga would be in Georgia. There's only one really rural county between Chattanooga and Atlanta. An intimately connected industrial urban growth corridor has become the reality.

And the most important point, argues Mr. Crockett, isn't rapid rail: "It's sustainability. It's constructing ties of commerce, culture and collaboration in fast-expanding, multicity regions like our Chatlanta."

What high-speed trains will do, he insists, is refocus development on the cities, discouraging sprawl. They will oblige cities to rethink their internal transit systems: "What sense will it make to go 185 miles an hour from Chattanooga to Atlanta only to rent an auto and go 24 miles an hour on a clogged freeway?"

Mr. Crockett likens people who insist congested highways can serve all the transportation needs within today's multicity regions to "merchants at a 1910 saddle convention, while folks outside were blowing auto horns."

Not by accident, perhaps, Mr. Crockett comes from a town -- Chattanooga -- that suffered such oppressive air pollution and inner city decline that scarcely anyone, 20 years ago, thought it had much future hope. Today, it's internationally recognized for its environmental and downtown recovery. It has America's largest electric bus fleet; indeed, it's home to the manufacturer.

Chattanooga now looks ahead of itself again as it champions bullet trains and partnership with an Atlanta region eight times its size. But if you believe leadership in today's America flows from cities and regions upward, not down from Washington and state capitals, here's your prime example.

Neal R. Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/22/98

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