Is the Southeast lagging when it comes to developing a high-speed rail plan?

Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph C. Szabo visited Richmond, Va., last month and called on elected officials in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia to develop a shared vision of rail service between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx - former mayor of Charlotte - noted in a statement that the Southeast's metro areas are growing faster than other metropolitan regions across the country.

"To meet the mobility needs of a growing population and to move the products they will need to market, rail must play an enhanced role in the transportation delivery network there," his statement said.

But South Carolina Department of Transportation officials say work already is underway on a plan to determine the best high-speed rail route across the state - to link Charlotte and Atlanta. Both Virginia and North Carolina also are working on a separate plan to link Washington and Charlotte.

Doug Frate, director of South Carolina DOT's Intermodal and Freight Programs, said a preferred route across the state is expected to emerge next year.

"We have already conducted public outreach sessions for the study in terms of identifying potential corridors, four of which traverse the Upstate and another two come through the Midlands region," he said.

Frate emphasized two points: The high-speed rail under study would be comparable to Amtrak's Acela service in the Northeast, where trains run about 100-140 mph, but would not be like so-called bullet trains in Europe and China that can reach speeds above 200 mph. Also, it's unclear how many years it will take to secure enough money to start construction.

"Construction depends on a number of different variables, not the least of which is funding," he added. "What this phase does is establish a preferred alternative with some more tangible costs projections for that alignment. Then you're able to get a good handle on what the funding needs are."

The corridor through South Carolina will be chosen based on many things: shortest distance; shortest time, which may be different because of how curvy a route is; potential ridership; public feedback; and environmental concerns.

While the shortest route may be along Interstate 85, that won't necessarily prove to be the best.

"The nature of high speed rail is you need the geometric alignment to support those higher speeds," Frate said. "That's one thing we have to look at in the Upstate, with the curvature of some of the alignments."

Meanwhile, the state also is finalizing its statewide multimodal transportation plan that looks at the future of South Carolina's passenger and freight rail networks. That is expected to go back out for public comment by August.

Passenger ridership has been setting record highs in the Southeast. Amtrak's Piedmont service carries about 100,000 more passengers between Charlotte and Raleigh than it carried five years ago, according to U.S. Department of Transportation figures. Passenger ridership also is up 100 percent in Virginia compared to 2009 levels.

Freight rail traffic in the Southeast also has been growing by about 10 percent a year.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.