Traffic in the South Tests 'Car Is King' Mentality

Plans to build bullet trains and light-rail systems - as alternatives to asphalt and autos - provide a look at the future of commuting

During every rush hour, Atlanta's eight-lane highways are clogged by Ford Explorers, Chrysler convertibles, BMWs, and Toyota Corollas lumbering to or from the suburbs.

The car culture is so ingrained here that one cartoonist showed an Atlantan walking his dog by sitting behind the wheel and holding a leash out the window.

But the "Car is King" mind-set is shifting in this city, where residents commute even further than their counterparts in Los Angeles do.

A certain resignation has set in that building only roads to accommodate Atlanta's 3 million people - and a half million more over the next decade - is not the solution. It's a conclusion being reached across the region - the one of the nation's fastest-growing areas. The South is now considering alternative transportation - from low-cost light rail to high-tech high-speed rail. And the South's choices are likely to be waymarks for other fast-growing regions - from the wide-open West (see story below) to the crowded Northeast corridor.

"We've got to convince people that we need to start [planning for alternative transportation]," says Charles Smith, director of Florida's high-speed rail program. "Otherwise life's going to come to a standstill."

Across the South, planners and private investors are embracing most alternatives to highway building. Here's a snapshot of what some states are planning:

Georgia's situation is the region's most dire. The state has the lowest gasoline tax in the nation and a constitution that allows the tax to be spent only on highways and bridges - not other forms of transport. And because Atlanta is out of compliance with US clean-air standards, officials aren't allowed to plan new road construction that uses federal money here.

It's a Catch-22 that has been a wake-up call, especially to the Atlanta-metro region, which includes three of the nation's 10 fastest-growing counties. A coalition of commuters, business leaders, and city planners is calling for commuter rail - a demand that would have been unheard of five years ago. A new study on commuter rail recommends that work on three lines begin immediately and suggests three others be running by 2010.

The legislature also just approved $4 million for a line connecting Macon, Ga., and Atlanta.

North Carolina lawmakers are addressing transit problems before growth gets out of control. Several plans are being discussed in the legislature - from commuter rail in the Raleigh/Durham, Winston-Salem/Greensboro, and Charlotte areas to intrastate, high-speed trains.

"Our population has nearly doubled in the past 10 years," says Hamilton Horton, a North Carolina legislator. "It used to be something we laughed about people up North having to deal with. Now you can count on crawling traffic anytime between 4 and 6."

High-speed rail proposals in Florida are more visionary than other plans - but also the most troubled. For nearly a decade, the state has been trying to connect Miami to Orlando to Tampa with a high-speed rail line. One project has failed and a second one is now 1-1/2 years in the making.

The latest proposal is expected to cost $6.5 billion. Studies show that if the entire route is fully operational by 2006, it would be profitable by 2020.

While the South is ahead of other regions in some respects, it is also tromping on familiar ground. It will have to handle tough issues, such as how to finance new trains, that have proved too taxing elsewhere: Southern California and Ohio have seen high-speed rail plans fall apart in recent years when start-up funding fell through.

Environmental and homeowner issues are also key sticking points. In Florida, especially, some foresee environmental problems because railways would snake through sensitive areas. And homeowners nationwide worry their property values will decline if previously out-of-service train tracks are put into use.

But experts say the South has unique strengths - primarily its experience with freight travel and its history of involving private investors in public projects. These two ingredients may be key to the South's success in passenger rail.

"The South is now poised to take advantage of moving people and should excel because of its experience on the freight side," says John Wilson, president of the Atlanta-based Southern Coalition for Advanced Transportation. "I think you're going to have some interesting dynamics as rail begins to evolve in the South."

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