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High-Speed Rail — And Us

Neal Peirce / May 07 2009

For Release Sunday, May 10, 2009
© 2009 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceWhat could we expect of an America that offers serious train service–high speed rail, regular passenger rail, links to downtowns, airports, public transit systems?

Until this winter, the very thought was chimerical. But President Obama is making it clear he’s deadly serious about a radical shift from the 20th century pattern of short-shrifting rail in favor of almost total, relentless auto, truck (and air) dominance.

“My high-speed rail proposal,” he’s arguing, “will lead to innovations that change the way we travel in America. We must start developing clean, energy-efficient transportation that will define our regions for centuries to come.”

And in case that’s insufficiently clear, check this new presidential assertion: Obama– “High-speed rail is long overdue, and this plan lets American travelers know that they are not doomed to a future of long lines at the airports or jammed into cars on the highways.”

OK, reality check pause. Except for California–where voters last fall approved $9 billion in bond funding for an 800-mile network to handle 220-mile-an-hour trains–it will likely take many decades for us to clear whole new rights-of-way to build high speed rail systems comparable to Europe, Japan or even China.

Why? The costs, in tens of billions, will be daunting. And America’s become tortuously slow, way behind world standards, in building any kind of infrastructure. Some states spend years just adding HOV or exclusive bus lanes to existing highways. And the excuse isn’t just environmental safeguards, says former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee. It’s lack of moxie–tough, knowledgeable leadership by state transportation directors, made worse by the fact few now have appreciable rail-building experience.

So it’s a safe bet the vast majority of the $13 billion in new rail funding the administration has so far identified won’t go for 133-mile per hour marvels like France’s TVG. Or Japan’s 180-m.p.h Shinkansen (a line I recall riding, with wonder, fully 32 years ago).

Realistically, most of the early Obama train dollars will go for better track signals, upgrading or adding extra tracks to existing rail corridors.

That alone signals a vital change– “clearing the track,” so to speak, for more rapid and reliable rail service because passenger trains won’t so often be marooned by slow freights in their way.

But a robust American rail system is about more than tracks and train sets. It will make us less oil dependent, undergirding our national security. It will lower our carbon emissions. And it can contribute in a big way to the mobility and economic health of the “megaregions” where most Americans now live.

A prime example: the prospect of a Chicago-centered “hub and spoke” rail system to serve the Midwest. With top train speeds increased to 110 miles an hour, two hours would be trimmed off the Chicago-Detroit or Chicago-Cleveland runs. Equally vital: the convenience of frequent service. Chicago-Detroit daily round trips would rise from three to nine, for example, and Chicago-Milwaukee service from eight to 17.

But it’s not just major cities that would benefit. Think of the connectivity that could be delivered to such smaller cities as Peoria and Springfield in Illinois, Lansing and Kalamazoo in Michigan, and LaCrosse in Wisconsin–many hurting from loss of regional air service. For major enterprises headquartered in Chicago and other top cities, these towns can function as valuable “back offices” for professional and financial services, or for specialized manufacturing–if they’re easily reached.

Plus, with commuter rail and feeder bus lines, hundreds of communities, even rural locations, can link easily into a mega-region’s entire rail system, the major cities and airports included.

So it’s no surprise that eight Midwestern governors–in a region that’s been talking of regional rail breakthroughs for years–have moved quickly. With Chicago Mayor Richard Daley joining in, they’ve asked U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for an initial $3.4 billion for three lead high-speed Midwest routes.

The competition from other regions–the Northeast Corridor, California, Florida and Cascadia in the Pacific Northwest, for example–will predictably be fierce. But the Midwesterners can produce a study by transportation expert Alex Metcalf, conducted for the Indiana High Speed Rail Assn., that estimates the Midwest could garner some 58,000 permanent long-term jobs from a full-blown multistate system. Metcalf cites a companion study, by the American Public Transit Assn., indicating the federal taxes likely to be generated from Midwest rail expansion would repay the subsidies needed to get the system up and running.

Will Washington seize the rail building opportunity to help the Midwest as that region reels from impacts of the auto company failures and ricocheting job losses?

If not, I’d ask, what’s a federal government for? Happily, with Chicago-resident and rail enthusiast Barack Obama in the White House, it’s finally time to take heart.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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