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Opinion: Some rail over the rainbow

(The following editorial by Bob Caylor was posted on the Fort Wayne News Sentinel website on May 10.)

FORT WAYNE, Ind. -- The prospects for high-speed rail and the possibility of one day riding trains from Fort Wayne to Chicago or to Cleveland running faster than 100 mph remain dicey. If anything, creating a Midwestern network of high-speed rail lines faces even more obstacles than it did when advocates here began strongly promoting the plan more than three years ago. Federal budget deficits are much higher, and the foreseeable draws on public coffers deepen rapidly. Without federal funding, this high-speed rail network wonít come to be.

But that doesnít mean that local boosters working to promote high-speed rail here should give up. There are many things in its favor.

Fort Wayne overcame a large initial hurdle by persuading the state to designate this city as a point on a proposed Chicago-Cleveland line. That wasnít a given, considering that Fort Wayne hasnít had a spot on any Amtrak route in about 15 years. If you want to board a passenger train today, the nearest point to do so is at Waterloo, in DeKalb County.

And the state did appropriate $2.6 million for initial studies of the environmental impact of the proposed routes from Chicago to Cleveland and Chicago to Cincinnati. Geoff Paddock, a devoted advocate for bringing high-speed rail service to Fort Wayne, says that the environmental assessment is proceeding.

Paddock was one of the organizers of a meeting at South Side High School last week to update northeast Indiana residents on high-speed rail. In that meeting, perhaps the most encouraging news is that other Midwestern states are moving ahead faster than Indiana. Being left behind isnít a morale-booster, but the fact that other states are moving may encourage Indiana to move, too.

Illinois, for example, already has upgraded an existing rail line from Chicago to Springfield, the capital.

Itís encouraging that even as Great Lakes states struggle to improve their economies and repair state budgets, some are moving forward in limited ways to build up rail infrastructure.

They could be better positioned to serve the changing population of the Midwest and of the nation. These demographic changes mean there are more people who could be served well by better rail-passenger service.

People are living longer, and senior citizens are more affluent, with more time and money to spend traveling. Rail travel could be an inviting alternative to long car rides for some.

Households are smaller, with many more single people who are middle-aged or older. Inevitably, rail travel is going to be more expensive than driving. If youíre transporting a family of six to a destination, six tickets would all but rule out any option but driving. But for a single or a couple, the cost of train tickets may be worth being spared the hassles of traffic and parking.

The costs of creating this rail network would be high. Paddock says the latest estimates heís seen place the cost of the whole Midwest network at about $7 billion. The cost of the Chicago-to-Cleveland line alone would be about $1.2 billion, with about $600 million of that being in Indiana. Indianaís share, if funding followed the kind of 80-20 federal-state split used when interstates were built, would be $120 million.

At the moment, when Indianaís state budget in the next year is more than $100 million short of being in balance, the cost of a high-speed rail line would be untenable. But Paddock and other promoters of the plan are talking up the economic benefits that would accrue to the state, too.

Steel Dynamics Inc. would be well-positioned to supply rails for new construction. Building that line might employ about 5,000 workers, Paddock said, with 500 or so permanent jobs in maintenance and operations.

But forecasting future economic benefits is a secondary argument. Before these high-speed lines are laid, Congress and state legislators need to be convinced that rail is a worthwhile area for more transportation spending.

It is unrealistic to suggest that high-speed rail ought to wither or go forward solely on private funding. No form of transportation in the history of the Midwest developed without the support of government spending: not canals, not railroads, not highways, not airports and airlines. The truth is, governments are inextricably involved in developing transportation, and they always have been.

Certainly itís fair to weigh rail against other forms of transportation in competition for public funds. That doesnít just mean how much rail would cost, but also how much fuel it might save, how much it might reduce pollution and how its convenience would contribute to the quality of lives.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

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