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Industry leaders gather in Meridian, Miss., for high speed rail summit

(The following story by Ida Brown appeared on the Meridian Star website on October 13.)

MERIDIAN, Miss. — National and state leaders convened at downtown Meridian's Union Station Friday to plot a strategy for high-speed rail.

A first for the Southern High-Speed Rail Commission, the summit's intent was to look at and talk about proposals for bringing passenger rail to Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

"Several lines are being proposed, but the most important thing is to get all the states' governors and senators and the leaders of the city to really appreciate that investing in rail that would connect the cities will create a lot of jobs, stimulate reinvestment in all the cities where the train stops, and it will give people an affordable way to travel," said Shelley Poticha of Reconnecting America, a national non-profit organization working to integrate transportation systems and the communities they serve.

Attendance included 97 people from the three states – representing their departments of transportation, elected officials, city planners, chambers of commerce and tourism officials – and the rail commissioners.

"Those assembled heard from the best minds in the nation on rail policy, rail development and transit-oriented development, which Union Station is an example of that," said Meridian Mayor John Robert Smith.

Although planned for several months, Smith said the timing for the summit was ideal, referring to last week's passage of the Amtrak Reauthorization and Rail Safety Bill by Congress. The bill more than doubled the funding authorization for Amtrak, authorizing more than $13 billion for passenger rail development.

To be eligible for funding, states must have a rail plan crafted by their federal, state and local officials.

"My purpose in recommending that the commission hold this summit was so that we in the South can be ready for those rail improvement dollars that will flow from the next Congress in the next administration," Smith said.

Soaring fuel prices and the financial meltdown of recent weeks only accelerate the need for other modes of transportation that are more cost effective.

"Congress has now caught up with the American people in realizing that rail is that option," he said.

The summit featured both national and local industry leaders and high-speed rail advocates, including Alex Kummant, Amtrak president and CEO; Mike Haverty, Kansas City Southern Railway chairman and CEO; Bill Bronte, chief, California Department of Transportation's Rail Division; Michael Dukakis, former Massachusetts Governor and former Amtrak chairman; William Ankner, secretary, Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development; Frank Busalacchi, chairman, Southern High-Speed Rail Commission and former chairman, Amtrak; and Karen Parsons, executive director of SHSRC.

"The Southern High-Speed Rail Commission is going to go back and put together a plan for how to really take this idea into reality, so they have a map that shows where they would like to improve the service to go faster," Poticha said.

"This is really exciting; something like this puts Meridian and the Southern states right on the cutting edge," she said. "It's a very significant step."

Antonio Perez, president and CEO of Talgo – a Spanish manufacturer of railway vehicles – and Nora C. Friend, director of the company's business and development, agrees.

"The region's realizing the importance of getting together and the speakers coming here shows the importance of this region for the rail and transportation," Perez said.

"And the fact that Mayor Smith has been able to pull together the high profile speakers in attendance points to the fact that the region is seriously considering implementing a transportation mode that is very important – important not only for transportation itself, but also economic development."

Monday, October 13, 2008

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