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Opinion: Virginia must get serious on high-speed rail

(The following column by Michael Paul Williams appeared on the Richmond Times-Dispatch website on July 20, 2010.)

RICHMOND, Va. — As Sam Brubaker waited for a late-running train, high-speed rail service from Richmond to Raleigh must have looked like a pipe dream.

Brubaker, 21, was about to return to North Carolina State University after a weekend spent making an animated movie in Richmond as part of the 48 Hour Film Project.

"I would absolutely take the train more often if we had a high-speed system," he said. "Train service in America is deplorably slow."

As he sat on the rear patio of the Amtrak station on Staples Mill Road, his thoughts drifted to the passenger train he had taken from London to Paris on a line in which speeds reach 186 mph.

Traveling from Richmond to Raleigh at 110 mph as proposed "would be really nifty," he said. Instead, his train was running late -- it left 44 minutes behind schedule -- and his trip was slated to run nearly 3½ hours. That's almost an hour longer than it takes to navigate the trip by automobile.

Given this reality, high-speed rail should be an easy sell for Richmond-area residents. But on the eve of tonight's public hearing by Virginians For High Speed Rail and the Southeast High Speed Rail Association, the concept appears stalled on the tracks.

Even the location of the 7 p.m. forum -- the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles building on West Broad Street -- seems to mock the prospects of Virginians zipping up and down the coast in fast trains anytime soon.

"So much of our infrastructure is focused around car travel," Brubaker said when asked why he thinks the United States lags behind Europe and Japan, where trains reach speeds of 200 mph. In the U.S., he said, "If you don't have a car, you're heavily disenfranchised."

Inside The Caboose, a wine, beer and cheese shop along the tracks in the railroad town of Ashland, owner Ian Kirkland said he hasn't thought much about high-speed rail because it seems so far off.

Kirkland has concerns about safety and cost effectiveness, but otherwise he's on board. "I would love to see us take more advantage of the rails," he said.

Salesman Ben Martin, fresh off a recent high-speed rail trip from Bilbao to Madrid, Spain, was dazzled by the roomy seats, TV and bar. He drives 35,000 to 40,000 miles each year as part of his job and doesn't enjoy flying.

"I'm sure that you could fill seats on a high-speed train," Martin said. "From here to D.C. would be a no-brainer."

It all sounds great, and it makes perfect sense. But frankly, at this point, the prospects of high-speed rail out of Richmond seem as likely as a rocket trip to Mars.

For one thing, there's the bottom line. Improving our decrepit rail infrastructure would cost an estimated $1.8 billion just to make the necessary improvements between Richmond and Washington. The state's entire high-speed rail system would cost $5.3 billion.

Unfortunately, Virginia received only $75 million in federal stimulus money for high-speed rail. We got caught napping, with too few shovel-ready projects -- unlike North Carolina, which received $545 million in stimulus money for high-speed rail. Given Virginia's closer proximity to the Washington-New York corridor, that's inexcusable.

If we're serious about economic development, we must develop a greater sense of urgency about high-speed rail. We're perilously close to being left at the station.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

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