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Pa. public interest group urges support for high-speed trains

(The following story by Jon Schmitz appeared on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website on February 10, 2010.)

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — A Pennsylvania public interest group on Tuesday urged the federal government to set a goal of connecting every major city in the U.S. with a network of high-speed passenger trains by mid-century.
A report released by the Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group chronicled decades of neglect of the nation's passenger rail system while the federal government poured billions of dollars into interstate highways and air transportation.

It praised President Barack Obama's allocation of $8 billion in stimulus funds for high-speed rail, noting that the demand for funding produced $57 billion in requests from states. Even if all $57 billion had been funded, that would represent only a "down payment" on developing a system that could rival those in Europe and Asia, the group said.

Pennsylvania got a relatively small share of the money -- $26.4 million, most of which will go to improvements on the Harrisburg to Philadelphia rail line. That drew criticism from U.S. Sens. Bob Casey and Arlen Specter, who complained about a lack of funding for two other projects, restoring rail service between Scranton and New York City and a magnetic levitation train serving Pittsburgh International Airport, Downtown Pittsburgh and Greensburg.

PennPIRG spokeswoman Catherine Ngo said the state "might one day be part of a national network of high speed rail on par with the bullet trains of Europe and Asia, but it is going to take a long-term commitment from all levels of government to plan and fund the system. Without such a commitment, this recent momentum could be lost. We simply cannot afford a false start on high-speed rail."

The report, "The Right Track -- Building a 21st Century High-Speed Rail System for America," said passenger rail development would reduce highway congestion, cut the nation's dependence on foreign oil and create an estimated 1.6 million construction jobs, giving "a needed shot in the arm for America's struggling manufacturing sector."

It noted that modest improvements already made to rail lines have produced large dividends. Amtrak's share of travelers going from New York to Boston grew from 18 percent to 47 percent after its introduction of near high-speed Acela service in the corridor. Improvements to service between Harrisburg and Philadelphia resulted in a tripling of ridership. Overall Amtrak ridership grew by 26 percent in the last decade.

Ms. Ngo said the report underscores the enthusiasm among states and travelers for high-speed rail. She said the volume of funding requests along with the increased ridership on Amtrak answers critics who say trains won't attract enough passengers to be viable.

In a statement released by PennPIRG, state Rep. Joseph Markosek, D-Monroeville, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said high-speed passenger rail "is a critical tool for reinventing the nation's economy. Our state has recognized the need to greatly improve our rail system and we are committed to building off of the momentum provided by the administration."

The report gives an overview of rail projects in nine regions across the U.S. and recommendations for how funding should be spent. It can be viewed at the group's website, pennpirg.org.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

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