High-speed rail, not 2nd airport, could drive economy

The response from knowledgeable aviation officials is the same today as it was back in the 20th century: A second major airport is still a dumb idea.

This time, the answer comes from Delta's new CEO, Richard Anderson. He told Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Jim Tharpe that building a second airport miles away from Hartsfield-Jackson --- possibly as far away as Chattanooga --- would likely make conditions less convenient for passengers, not more convenient.

"It's difficult enough for passengers to get from Concourse A to Concourse C, let alone from one airport to another to change flights," Anderson said.

He was responding to a recent proposal to expand Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport, 140 miles from Hartsfield-Jackson, and connect it via high-speed rail.

The notion of a second major airport --- either building a big new commercial airport or expanding an existing field --- has been around for a while. To some futurists, it seems the perfect answer for continuing the economic expansion of the Atlanta region while also alleviating the increasing flight congestion at Hartsfield-Jackson.

But the proposal is always grounded by political and logistical considerations. The General Assembly should forget about a second airport and concentrate on building the high-speed rail line. That would boost economic activity as well as relieve congestion at the world's busiest airport.

William Hartsfield's determination to build a municipal airport, at a time when few Americans had ever flown on an airplane, propelled Atlanta toward its future as a transportation hub. The region needs a similar visionary now to bring passenger rail back into the transportation network.

There seems to be little doubt that the skies will grow more crowded over the next decade. Lower ticket prices have put airplane travel within reach for grandmothers who want to baby-sit for a few days or college students who want to visit their parents for the weekend. Air travel nationwide has already surpassed its pre-Sept. 11 peak.

Atlanta is a major transportation hub with just one major airport, unlike, say, Houston or Chicago. Hartsfield-Jackson is expected to accommodate 86 million passengers this year and to reach capacity, despite the brand-new fifth runway, in a decade.

The looming capacity crunch has prompted Sen. Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, among others, to promote a Chattanooga connection. "I think many people in the northern areas would consider the Chattanooga possibility, especially with the traffic problems we have in the Atlanta area. It would be a smart concept as opposed to building a new airport," Mullis said earlier this summer.

The problem with that argument is that it misunderstands the passenger dynamic at Hartsfield-Jackson. Not even half the airport's flights originate with passengers in the northern arc of the Atlanta region who want to fly to another city. As Anderson noted, 70 to 75 percent of Hartsfield-Jackson's passengers are simply changing planes. Imagine requiring some of those passengers to ride a train to or from Chattanooga.

But Mullis is onto something with his proposal for high-speed rail. He should get moving on that. As passenger rail becomes faster and more efficient, it will drain off some airline passengers taking shorter trips --- say, from Atlanta to Greenville, S.C., or Winston-Salem. Although it's 600 miles from downtown Atlanta to Washington, D.C., it's easy to envision a day when that trip, too, is a convenient high-speed train ride.

For reasons that are not altogether clear, Georgia's political leaders have been slow to embrace passenger rail travel. It gets bogged down in a morass of half-baked ideological notions, conflated with their suspicions of MARTA and poor people as well as liberals and environmentalism, and hamstrung by their provincialism.

But if Mullis can see the value of high-speed rail as a connection between airports in two different cities, surely he can see its value just to connect the two cities. And if high-speed passenger rail can connect Atlanta and Chattanooga, why not Atlanta and Jacksonville or Atlanta and Greenville?

If Mullis can get others on board for his proposal for high-speed rail, he could be the region's next Hartsfield.

* Cynthia Tucker is the editorial page editor. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays.