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Editorial: Faster trains, for real

(The following editorial appeared on the Philadelphia Inquirer website on September 30, 2010.)

PHILADELPHIA — The ambitious plan unveiled Tuesday by Amtrak for true high-speed service along the Northeast Corridor has something going for it that no other U.S. rail project can boast: millions of riders already lined up to buy train tickets.

As the nation’s busiest rail corridor, the route from Boston to Washington, through Philadelphia, has a built-in base of customers. In the event that Amtrak realizes its vision for superfast service, the demand for faster trains in the Northeast seems almost assured - even if the fares, as expected, will not be cheap.

Beyond the pull of tradition, the Northeast is a critical region that faces travel gridlock on the ground along I-95 and, increasingly, in the air. Plans for upgrades to the decades-old interstate can only do so much by way of alleviating congestion. Backups at airports in the Northeast also ripple across the country, as connecting flights are delayed.

As the region’s population grows - and with the need to fight smog and reduce dependence on foreign oil - it makes sense to maximize use of Amtrak’s network not merely to boost the region, but as a national priority.

With talk of a 38-minute trip from Center City to New York - or halving the time to travel the entire 426 miles from Boston to Washington - the proposed high-speed rail route along new tracks would indeed revolutionize mass transit across the Northeast.

On the jobs front, thousands of people would be needed to construct such a massive public-works project. Amtrak officials also calculate that the long-term economic boost to the region would mean 120,000 new permanent jobs.

No wonder a key congressman, reacting to Amtrak’s announcement at a presentation in Philadelphia, talked of the "critical need for true high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor."

U.S. Rep. John Mica (R., Fla.), minority leader of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called for moving ahead with planning for the $117 billion initiative as quickly as possible.

Until now, President Obama’s high-speed rail efforts have been focused on 10 other corridors with the potential to be transformed by fast train travel. One is a link between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which probably bears closer scrutiny to determine if it’s actually viable.

But while high-speed projects being planned from scratch - such as a route to Orlando, Fla. - may prove feasible, the Northeast Corridor would appear to be an assured investment.

Can the nation afford it, and will high-speed rail be cost-effective? Certainly, there is a great deal of work yet to be done on plans to pay for high-speed rail lines, including possible public-private schemes. But it’s appropriate to view the launch of high-speed rail as the equivalent of the nation’s push in the 1950s to build the interstate highway system and develop air travel.

The federal government has spent more than $450 billion and $200 billion on highways and aviation, respectively, over the last three decades. It’s time to invest wisely in the rail system, and there’s no better place to begin than in the Northeast.

Friday, October 1, 2010

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