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Opinion: Midwest governors should advocate for high-speed rail

(The following editorial by Howard A. Learner was posted on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website on November 26.)

MILWAUKEE, Wisc. -- Nationally, while the public voted for change on Nov. 7, Midwest voters re-elected four pragmatic governors in Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota.

The combination of these second-term governors with the Democratic takeovers of the U.S. Senate and House - and going into the 2008 national elections, with pivotal Midwest electoral votes at stake - provides a potent force for cooperative regional solutions to pressing problems.

One starting point: The region's transportation system, which no longer works very well.

Business air travelers' frustration with flight delays, security hassles and poor service is palpable. Highway congestion is getting worse.

Travel times are maddeningly slow, wasteful and costly.

One solution: Jump-start the long-promised Midwest high-speed rail network, including the long-sought links between Milwaukee and Madison and through to Chicago and Minneapolis. This regional rail network would connect 10 major cities within a 400-mile radius of Chicago, along with the midsized cities in-between.

Modern, fast, comfortable, convenient trains operating at 100 mph to 125 mph can be time-competitive on a door-to-door basis. They can also pull together the regional economy and bolster the Midwest cities' business centers.

Because trains pollute less than cars and airplanes on a per-passenger-mile basis, rail development can help alleviate our global warming problems. And you can get productive work done while on a train.

In the absence of federal support, Wisconsin and other states have stepped up to support improved rail service. For example, Wisconsin's new Mitchell International Airport station has received rave reviews, and Milwaukee's new downtown train station should be a significant improvement.

Illinois appropriated funds this year to expand rail service between Chicago and Springfield, St. Louis, Champaign, Carbondale and Quincy, thereby breaking the ice for a next wave of upgraded rail service and capacity.

Michigan is continuing its partnership with Amtrak to increase speed and reduce travel times along the Detroit-Chicago corridor.

And Minnesota voters just amended the state constitution to funnel an extra $300 million a year into transportation projects.

As Mayor Richard Daley said in discussing Chicago's Olympics hopes: "You need better transportation to Milwaukee, you need better transportation to South Bend." Higher-speed rail is the only practical solution.

The region's congressional delegation rose to the challenge when the Bush administration tried last year to bankrupt Amtrak. Ridership in Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan is growing at double-digit rates, and the state transportation departments have committed to build a regional high-speed rail network.

But there is too little coordination across state lines and too little funding. States can't do it alone.

That's not how high-speed rail is succeeding on the East Coast, where Acela Express ridership grew more than 8% over the past year, reaching almost 2.7 million passengers. A similar federal-state partnership is needed in the Midwest.

The public is clearly demanding that government do better.

With travelers' frustration growing, it's time for the Midwest's governors to get together with the powerful congressional delegation to drum up the necessary financial support for high-speed rail development linking the Midwest's cities.

Let's make the region's interstate transportation system work much better.

Monday, November 27, 2006

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