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Editorial: Philadelphia’s a region on the fast track

(The following editorial appeared on the Philadelphia Inquirer website on April 23, 2009.)

PHILADELPHIA — Even though President Obama said it wasn't pie-in-the-sky stuff, most regions around the nation can only dream of a future in which high-speed rail plays a significant role.

But then there's lucky Philadelphia.

This region is uniquely positioned to benefit from the president's plan - announced last week - to spend as much as $13 billion over five years to upgrade passenger service and build high-speed rail corridors.

The Philadelphia area has the riders and the rails in place to build upon existing ridership, plus a potentially rich trove of new customers for improved commuter and intercity train service.

The city is a key stop along Amtrak's busy Boston-to-Washington corridor - already running fast trains. The region's rail service is filled out by SEPTA's impressive network and that of New Jersey Transit, which boasts some of the nation's newest service in its River Line.

Without question, it's exciting that Pennsylvania is one of the 10 rail corridors Obama identified last week as having the potential to be transformed by fast trains, which would link Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. But before funds are committed to that costly effort, an independent and steely-eyed analysis of the feasibility of sustained ridership along this long-discussed route is needed.

The benefits of other projects are much easier to see.

Certainly, the 2006 Amtrak improvements that shaved travel time between Philadelphia and Harrisburg proved their worth by boosting ridership 25 percent. Investing in greater speeds along the eastern leg of the route appears an easy sell - inasmuch as Obama plans to put the first federal funds into boosting speeds on existing intercity lines.

At the same time, it's good to hear that state transit officials intend to take a broader approach to applying for stimulus funding earmarked for railroad travel.

Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Allen D. Biehler may seek funds for a proposed new rail service from Philadelphia to Reading along the Route 422 corridor. Another possible link could be made between Scranton and New York City.

Building a rail line along 422 sounds like a worthy idea and a good use of the stimulus funds. It could ease the daily traffic snarls due to existing development in the region. Having train service there in the future could help fight sprawl by encouraging communities to target growth around rail transit hubs.

Were President Obama actually to achieve for rail travel what President Dwight D. Eisenhower did for highways, he would be both magician and miracle worker. These investments in rail-service improvements set the right tone and mark a refreshing change from years of pitched battles over Amtrak funding.

Obviously, any effort to get Americans to drive less is good for the environment and reduces the demand for foreign oil. At the same time, easing urban congestion while revitalizing key rail infrastructure wouldn't be a bad day's work.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

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