Opinion: Midwest high-speed rail on the fast track
(The following column by Howard A. Learner appeared on the Southwest News Herald website on September 17, 2009.)
CHICAGO — The world has changed. Just a few years ago, many people thought that high-speed rail development here was just a dream. Now, it's moving to reality. President Obama has made high-speed rail development his #1 national transportation priority fifty years after President Eisenhower advanced the build-out of the nation's interstate highway system.
In late July, eight Midwest Governors signed a Memorandum of Understanding, committing to combine regional and state planning and development work, prioritize corridor build-outs, and coordinate applications for federal funding. There is a new bipartisan Midwest Congressional High-Speed Rail Caucus.
This structural transformation of our transportation system will improve mobility with a new modern, fast, comfortable and convenient transportation option. It will create jobs and spur economic growth by pulling together the regional economy. It will protect our environment through less pollution, reducing congestion, and counteracting sprawl by pulling jobs, people and businesses downtown into our central cities.
There is broad national support for high-speed rail development. Forty states have proposed 278 projects seeking $102 billion in federal funding. In addition to the $8 billion in federal economic stimulus funding, the House has now appropriated $4 billion more for FY 2010 and has proposed $50 billion in the federal transportation reauthorization legislation.
Let's be clear, though: what happens in the Midwest is key to the nation's rail future. All eyes will be on the home region of President Obama, Chief of Staff Emanuel, Transportation Secretary LaHood, Federal Railroad Administrator Szabo and Amtrak Chair Carper. Critics will look for proof of hometown pork. They will search for railroad bridges to nowhere. If they find much, the strong support could evaporate.
That's why what's good for the Midwest is good for securing our nation's high-speed rail investment for the future. Here's how Midwest high-speed rail can succeed:
• First, as FRA Administrator Szabo urges, we need “one region - one voice.” We should support a regional vision of a vibrant Midwest tied together by high-speed rail connections. The Midwest Governors are working together in coordinating their states' plans and federal funding bids. The rest of us should support this vision and this cooperation.
• Second, let's not let perfection stand in the way of progress. The Midwest Regional Rail Initiative's ultimate vision includes 3,000 miles of passenger rail serving 65 million people in nine Midwest states. With a vision this ambitious and complex, there will be details that are less than perfect. Let's not permit controversies over particular stations, routes or speeds stand in the way of a united front and overall progress.
• Third, the Federal Railroad Administration's rules for the federal economic stimulus funding competitive bids make clear that this isn't only about trains. This is about mobility. This is about job creation. This is about economic development, growth and revitalization. This is about livable communities, and less pollution and a better environment.
In moving to realize this big vision, let's also focus on synergies to make these rail investments succeed. Let's invest in train stations, as Milwaukee, St. Louis and St. Paul are doing. Let's bolster transit, bus, taxi and airline connections so that rail stations can serve as truly inter-modal hubs of economic activity. Let's creatively build up vibrant communities around train stations. Let's rebuild the rail manufacturing industry, and expand use of cleaner biofuels as Governors Quinn and Culver are discussing.
Working together, we can create a win-win-win for our region: good for jobs and our economy, good for the environment, and good for people and our communities. Let's get on board together and advance the smart Midwest high-speed rail development on a fast track.
(Howard A. Learner is the executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, the Midwest's leading environmental and economic development advocacy organization. www.ELPC.org.)
Friday, September 18, 2009
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