After disembarking from Delta Air Lines Inc.’s inaugural flight to China, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue and Secretary of State Karen Handel were quickly faced with another transportation decision.
They could take a harrowing half-hour ride to downtown Shanghai through the gauntlet of Chinese traffic, or start their business mission by sailing into town uninhibited on a unique high-speed rail technology that some state legislators would like to see in Georgia.

That choice wasn’t a hard one.

Shanghai’s magnetically levitating, or maglev, train zipped the Georgia officials from Pudong International Airport to the Longyang Road subway/bus station nearly 19 miles away in only seven minutes.

The Shanghai maglev, the only commercially operating train of its kind in the world, made its first dash in 2003. Employing German technology, the Chinese government spent more than $1 billion on the train, which is propelled by magnetic force at speeds of more than 260 miles per hour using few moving parts and no friction.

Ms. Handel, for one, thought the technology was “cool.” Bert Brantley, a spokesman for the governor, said Mr. Perdue was also impressed as the train blazed past farmland, billboards and industrial parks at speeds that blurred the surrounding landscape.

But those high-level Georgia leaders aren’t the first of the state’s elected officials to be enamored by the modern transportation spectacle.

State Sen. Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga, along with State Sen. Doug Stoner of Marietta, visited Shanghai in early December of last year to ride the maglev, meet with officials and tour facilities.

Along with other legislators, they believe that maglev or a comparable form of high-speed rail technology could be an integral piece of a comprehensive statewide plan to alleviate air and road congestion in Georgia, a problem that has been cited as a limiting factor on the state’s competitiveness in the global economy.

On March 31, Mr. Mullis, Mr. Stoner and other senators put forth a resolution urging the Georgia Department of Transportation to study the feasibility of building a maglev train line connecting Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport with the airport in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The measure, which passed 54-1 with four senators not voting, calls for the DOT to report to the Senate by the end of this year.

Although it is non-binding, Mr. Mullis said he hoped the resolution would revive political discussion about an issue that has been discussed fruitlessly for years.

“I thought we needed to have political and legislative support; that’s why I got active in producing a resolution to encourage the DOT to move forward on that,” he said.

From Mr. Mullis’ perspective, Chattanooga is the right route for a variety of reasons. The majority of Georgia’s population is in Atlanta or north of it, the Interstate 75 corridor is heavily used, and Chattanooga’s “sorely underutilized” airport, known as Lovell Field, has potential for expansion, he said.

Also, a lot of the political groundwork for the 120-mile route has already been laid. Atlanta and Chattanooga officials have often discussed a high-speed rail link, and the Atlanta Regional Commission has been examining a maglev route between the locales on and off for almost a decade.

The Atlanta-Chattanooga region was chosen by the federal government in 1999 as one of seven regions to compete for a maglev demonstration project. The ARC headed up that effort.

But Atlanta was bypassed, and the project stalled until 2004, when the Georgia DOT once again commissioned the ARC to study the route further, said Bob McCord, the commission’s project manager for the maglev studies.

With $7 million from the federal government, $875,000 from the Cumberland Community Improvement District in northwest Atlanta and the same amount from Tennessee, the ARC completed a comprehensive outlook study.

It concluded that maglev would cost $25-$35 million per mile, compared to $10-$20 million for new high-speed rail.

Mr. McCord said that the train wouldn’t solve all Atlanta’s traffic problems, but it would make sense for regional trips. He made no predictions as to if or when the state would adopt such a heavy investment.

“These things take a long time,” he said.

Robert Brown, a state senator from Macon, agreed. As the lone voice against Mr. Mullis’ resolution, he said it was pointless to continue talking about these trains without any real policy or monetary call to action.

“It’s nothing new,” he said. “We’ve known for a long time that it would be advantageous for Georgia to have a high-speed train.”

Mr. Brown would like to see a route from Atlanta to Jacksonville, Fla., with stops in Macon and Savannah, especially if freight considerations come into play, but he said that the Chattanooga line should definitely be discussed.

Mr. Mullis became interested in maglev when Mary Peters, U.S. transportation secretary, visited Atlanta in 2006 and announced that even with scheduled improvements completed, the metro area would need a second airport by 2025 to meet demand.

The U.S. Department of Transportation gave Atlanta $1 million to be used in a study to determine where a new airport should be built once Hartsfield’s capital improvement program, which includes the recently approved $1.2 billion international terminal, has exhausted the airport’s ability to expand.

Because land for a sixth runway would be difficult if not impossible to procure, Hartsfield’s fifth runway opened in 2006 will probably be its last.

Clair Muller, chair of the Atlanta City Council’s transportation committee, said the second airport study hasn’t gotten off the ground because, like the Chattanooga plan implies, Hartsfield and other parties have yet to agree on the best course for the region.

Although she said the city and state have “waited way too long” to take action on the congestion problem, Ms. Muller said she is in no hurry to see a new airport built.

“I am pushing to make sure that we bring in other elements besides flying around in planes,” she said.

Mr. Mullis, whose district lies near the Tennessee border, said the proposed maglev route would boost economic development for his constituency, which is closely tied to the Chattanooga metropolitan area.

He also said the train would benefit Georgia as a whole. Shrugging off the notion that using Chattanooga’s airport would take business away from Georgia, he said that ending the state’s traffic woes could encourage more international companies to locate here.

“We don’t know how many companies we eliminate in attracting to Georgia because of congestion on our highways,” he said.

The issue for Georgia officials is whether the economic impact of such a train would justify the huge investment it would take to construct it.

Although she is concerned about statewide congestion and enjoyed the Shanghai train’s novelty, Ms. Handel has her doubts.

“Often ‘cool’ does not translate into practical and feasible, and I think that is probably the case with maglev. It’s extremely expensive compared to other modes of transit and road construction,” she said.

Based on Shanghai’s maglev Web site, she said the train would cost about $64 million per mile each way, and the track here would be six times as long. Although she couldn’t find statistics for Georgia, she said that compares with the $11 million per mile it costs to build a four-lane highway in Florida.

Also, China’s more centralized government allows officials to plow ahead with expensive projects without worrying about right-of-way issues that would be rampant in Georgia, where many residents north of Atlanta would have concerns about a train passing through their neighborhood.

Mr. Mullis admits that funding will be a huge issue, but his total cost estimate of $3-4 billion is less dramatic than Ms. Handel’s. He also said that because a maglev technology allows the train to levitate without friction and using few moving parts, the project would constitute a huge maintenance savings against traditional rail.

Ms. Handel thinks such a savings would be negligible considering the capital investment on the front end.

As the debate progresses, the Georgia DOT could be the equalizer.

He hadn’t heard about the Senate resolution, but Harvey Keepler, administrator of the DOT’s Office of Intermodal Programs, said the organization is currently conducting a study on the environmental impact of both maglev and steel wheel on rail for the very route Mr. Mullis is proposing.

The “tier one environmental impact” study underway is more advanced than a feasibility study because it “is detailed enough that it would allow us to construct a project once the study is completed,” Mr. Keepler said.

The DOT is currently trying to determine which form of rail transit would be best suited to traverse the Atlanta-Chattanooga route at a target speed of 180 miles per hour.

The organization is gathering information and holding community meetings. The $8 million, federally funded study began at the end of last year and is expected to be completed by the end of 2009, Mr. Keepler said.

Mr. Brantley, the governor’s spokesman, said after seeing the maglev train in action, the governor would consider arguments for the technology if required to address the issue before his second term ends in 2010.

But Mr. Perdue is a data-driven decision maker who, like Ms. Handel, will want to see the tangible benefits for Georgia’s citizens, Mr. Brantley said.

“As we stir this pot together of transportation solutions, I think that’s one ingredient we need to look at,” he said.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...