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Opinion: High-speed rail would suit Midwest

(The following article by Howard A. Learner was posted on the Capital Times website on April 7.)

MADISON, Wisc. -- Madison's economic development efforts require more and better intercity transportation connections. While the airline industry is restructuring, let's look at one transportation solution that can help travelers move more easily around the Midwest - modern, fast, comfortable and convenient high-speed rail service linking Madison to Chicago, Milwaukee and the Twin Cities.

A recent Capital Times editorial, "Keeping jobs in Madison," connected the shortage of high-quality jobs coming to Madison with its lack of transportation links: "It could turn out that the development of a high-speed rail connection to O'Hare International Airport and Chicago is not merely a sound environmental initiative but also a necessary economic development investment."

Likewise, at an Accelerate Madison program in January, leading high-tech business people explained that Dane County Regional Airport flight constraints are hurting business, and that high-speed rail service connecting Madison business travelers to O'Hare is one solution.

Modern high-speed trains running at 110 mph or more, which link up Madison with the 10 major metropolitan areas within a 400-mile radius of Chicago, could be an important new transportation option for both business and leisure travelers. High-speed rail is working well on the East Coast, linking Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington. High-speed rail plans are moving forward in California and the Pacific Northwest. It's now time for a "Midwest Metroliner," including the Minneapolis-Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago corridor, to move from planning to operation.

The Federal Rail Administration has rated the Midwest as the nation's best regional rail development corridor opportunity. Roughly 25 percent of O'Hare flights are 400 miles or less - precisely the distance at which high-speed rail travel is competitive on a door-to-door basis. Nine state departments of transportation have developed the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative. When it comes to environmental benefits, trains are more efficient and produce less air pollution per passenger mile than air or car travel. High-speed rail is ready for prime time and should be part of the solution to Madison's and other midsized cities' needs for better intercity transportation access.

Can we afford Midwest high-speed rail? Sure we can. For example, the "to go" costs for the Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison high-speed rail corridor are estimated to be $500 million for the infrastructure, plus modern new railcars. That's less expensive than the $800 million Marquette Interchange in Milwaukee or the $1 billion estimate for the proposed new 12.5-mile I-355 toll road in the outlying Chicago suburbs.

Will high-speed rail connections to the airports work well? Yes. They can work at Dane County, Milwaukee's General Mitchell Airport and O'Hare, just as they are working at Baltimore-Washington, Newark and several European airports. A high-speed rail connection can help make the overall trip easier.

Will people ride the new high-speed trains? "Are you kidding?" says a frequent flier friend of mine.

Ridership on the East Coast corridor has steadily increased, and passenger trains carry more people between New York and Washington than any airline does. The fast trains have comfortable seats, conference tables, plugs for laptops and cell phone access. Business people can actually get work done and stretch out their legs. On the weekends, high-speed trains connect college students with their families and make it easier for people to travel for sports and cultural events, family visits and holiday shopping.

Federal leadership is key to making this happen. Federal funds cover most of the costs of building an airport, bridge, highway or bike path. Passenger rail is the only transportation mode without a regular source of capital investment. Bipartisan proposals in Congress would level the playing field by supporting rail investments, without threatening either highway or transit funding. Rail projects are planned for the Midwest, Pacific Northwest, Southeast, California, Florida and Texas. It's time for Congress to step up and get on board with funds for these trains.

Midwest high-speed rail development can help provide better intercity transportation services for Madison. This is a win-win for economic development and the environment. Let's get these fast trains moving.

Howard A. Learner is the executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago, the Midwest's leading environmental and economic development advocacy organization.

Wednesday, April 7, 2004

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