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Editorial: Build high-speed rail

(The following editorial appeared on the Buffalo News website on March 9, 2009.)

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Here’s an idea worth tracking: The Obama administration seems receptive to creation of a new high-speed rail line between Buffalo and Albany, a potential local link to far wider high-speed rail service that could provide a significant boost to upstate New York.

The administration is considering how to parcel out $8 billion in stimulus bill funding set aside to modernize the nation’s passenger rail system. The Buffalo-to-Albany route ought to be high on the list, especially because parts of that route are “shovel-ready.”

There’s a commendably strong congressional push for this idea, as well. Leading that is Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, who formed the Upstate New York Caucus in the House. She is joined by Rep. Brian Higgins, who sits on the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Eric Massa of Corning, Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand and two Republicans, Reps. Chris Lee and John McHugh of Watertown.

Last month, Slaughter brought members of the Upstate New York Caucus together with representatives from Gov. David A. Paterson’s office, the New York Department of Transportation, the Federal Railroad Association, Amtrak and CSX to work on bringing high-speed rail to upstate.

The project looks promising, given this administration’s willingness to offer this public transportation opportunity and catapult the nation firmly into an era of strong growth in state-of-the-art public transportation in Europe and Asia. The stimulus package focus on quick projects with long-term benefits offers an ideal source of funding.

In addition to the $8 billion from the stimulus bill, Obama has another $5 billion for high-speed rail over five years in his 2010 budget proposal. Moreover, building a highspeed diesel line to Albany would cost $3 billion and take three to five years, compared to nearly $20 billion and a little over a decade for a top-level high-speed “bullet” train along the same route.

Besides, current Amtrak service is a mess. Its passenger trains use tracks owned by the freight-haulers, and often run well behind schedule because they need to wait to allow freight trains to pass. That’s no way to lure riders.

The moderate approach to higher-speed travel would be accomplished in increments, with trains between 110 mph on new tracks dedicated to rail service along available or already- owned rights of way, then moving to 125 mph or more while concurrent planning continues for the ultimate highspeed rail of 200 mph.

The Buffalo-to-Albany corridor already is among 11 federally designated corridors, including a portion running from Albany to New York City, which bodes well for New York to get a piece of this funding. That offers a chance for highspeed eastern links to New York or Boston, and eventually to another high-speed corridor from Cleveland through Chicago and St. Louis to Kansas City.

And the Buffalo-Albany route would cut transit time to about three hours initially, in a far more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly alternative to travel by automobile.

This is a project that’s not only visionary, but doable. It’s a gain for the transportation infrastructure, and a well-targeted use of stimulus funding. All aboard.

Monday, March 9, 2009

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