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Editorial: All aboard high speed rail

(The following editorial appeared on the PHiladelphia Inquirer website on August 15, 2010.)

PHILADELPHIA — Conventional wisdom may say otherwise, but the recession is a good time to start spending the billions of dollars it will take to make high-speed rail travel a reality in this country. The benefits of that economic stimulus could not be denied.

Don't we already have high-speed rail lines, you might ask. And the answer is no, not really, as staff writer Paul Nussbaum pointed out in a four-part series of articles that ran last week in The Inquirer.

While Amtrak's fastest train, the Acela Express, chugs along at about 70 miles per hour, Spain's AVE Train cruises at 186 m.p.h.

Think about it: Trains traveling that fast would slice in half the five hours it now takes the Acela to get to Boston from Philadelphia. A New York-to-Washington trek becomes a 90-minute jaunt. Visiting or working in one Northeast Corridor city while living in another one suddenly becomes a much easier feat to accomplish.

A growing movement to take America where Europe and Asia have been for years with high-speed rail now includes President Obama, who recently committed $8 billion in stimulus money to new rail projects, including $1.2 billion toward the cost of a Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed line that may become the nation's first.

But Obama is just sticking his toe in the water. To get fully immersed, a much bigger financial commitment has to be made. A national network of high-speed lines will cost up to a $1 trillion, spread out over several decades. But the investment would pay huge dividends, including tens of thousands of new construction and manufacturing jobs.

The investment needed would be comparable to the effort that began the interstate highway system. It will require careful analysis of where it would make sense to put high-speed lines.

That's actually a conversation that needs to be had about all rail travel in this country. Government subsidies for lightly used Amtrak routes aren't justified.

Transportation and other government officials at all levels, as well as consumers and other stakeholders, must be fully involved in these discussions. They can get a good head start by considering an excellent proposal for a Northeastern high-speed line developed by the University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

The PennDesign plan includes new tracks for two rail lines dedicated to high-speed trains traveling from Boston to Washington. High-speed stations would also be built in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Hartford, Conn., and Long Island, N.Y. The new tracks would free existing tracks for commuter and freight service.

The popularity of these high-speed lines could triple Amtrak ridership in the Northeast Corridor to 55 million annual riders by 2040. The amenities needed to serve riders at new stations will benefit the surrounding communities. Increased train travel will also reduce the need for new roads, and the environment will benefit from reduced carbon emissions from cars.

It makes sense to integrate a new high-speed rail system with commuter lines and air carriers to build a transportation network better than anything in Europe. The cost will be great, but so will the benefits. Obama should emulate Eisenhower on highways, and make a defining investment in the needed infrastructure.

Monday, August 16, 2010

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