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Editorial: Make high speed rail fast, and safe

(The following editorial appeared on the Buffalo News website on May 29, 2010.)

BUFFALO, N.Y. — On a recent visit to Buffalo, President Obama indicated an appreciation for what high speed rail can mean for revitalizing a state's economy — and added, jokingly, that there would be the added benefit of avoiding the airport security line practice of taking off one's shoes. It all sounded good.

Now, let's clear the hurdles.

The Obama administration announced $8.5 billion in high-speed rail grants in late January, with $151 million to help with a proposed high-speed line from Buffalo to New York City. Indeed, that's a disappointing amount compared to the anticipated costs. But, along with about $4.6 million secured from this year's Consolidated Appropriations Act, it will make a difference.

The $151 million in federal money is to go toward preliminary work on a third track between Rochester and Batavia and construction of a second track between Schenectady and Albany, in addition to improvements between Albany and Montreal. The Depew and Rochester train stations are to be renovated to comply with the American with Disabilities Act.

But there are challenges to be overcome and significant points that could derail these plans if not ironed out by Sept. 1 — specifically, the state's previous agreement with CSX Corp., which owns the right of way for the planned high-speed track from the Albany area to Buffalo, for a top speed of 90 mph. The hope now is for a 110-mph line.

The company has safety concerns involving a relatively narrow 30-foot gap between the high speed lines and the company's freight tracks, necessitating a slower 90 mph on curves.

That's a valid concern, although others look at examples of narrow gaps around the country and doubt there's a problem. The 110-mph goal is important to reducing travel time between upstate and downstate cities, expanding the linkages and helping rail travel ease growing airline congestion.

But those speeds have to be safe speeds. Dedicated high-speed passenger rail lines in safer corridors, even if that means some additional land acquisitions on the curves, are the best path to 110 mph — which, as Assemblyman Sam Hoyt of Buffalo has pointed out, is the low end of the definition of "high speed" rail.

There were enough looming issues to raise concern by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., over what appeared to be a stalled agreement on the best way to deploy the funding and on the specifications for a new high speed rail line. The federal money can indeed lead to relatively quick improvements in the current delay-plagued passenger rail system — at the 90-mph level.

Servicing freight business in upstate New York has to continue to be a priority, and harming the economy by forcing CSX to change its business model defeats the economy-enhancing purpose of high speed rail, as Hoyt said. High speed trains and CSX freight can coexist in the same corridor, with a designated track for passengers, but CSX sees the 30-foot separation between freight and rail tracks as key.

Both the state and company's reported willingness to work out differences is encouraging. Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, who formed the upstate congressional caucus, convened a meeting with the stakeholders and Secretary Ray LaHood. In that meeting, LaHood pledged his full support — but it was the presence of Karen Rae, deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, that offers hope, especially after the recent departure of the state's top high speed rail official, Ann Purdue.

Sources said Purdue may have left out of anger that other state officials demanded the deal with CSX be changed. She probably had a right to be upset. The state, as Schumer said, "tied itself in knots" by signing the CSX agreement, for which the company should not be faulted.

If New York State wants to be a player in high speed rail, it must solve these issues. Proper use of the available federal funds would help create jobs and a healthier economy, so it's important that the governments and the rail lines keep talking to find a way to get this job well, and safely, done.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

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