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Opinion: Riding the rails, rapidly

TOLEDO, Ohio -- Sooner or later, this big, fat, happy country of ours will have to recognize that it can’t rely forever on gasoline-powered cars and buses to travel from one place to another, according to an editorial published in the Toledo Blade.

The long-term prospects for oil-price increases makes that inevitable, as well as the perpetual, costly, and sisyphean struggle, especially in the frost belt, to keep our highway system from falling to pieces. Case in point: Have you driven I-75 to or from Detroit lately?

This is not an argument for dismantling our reliance on rubber-tired, internal-combustion vehicles. They will be with us for decades to come, although perhaps pared down from their present bloated size.

Instead, envision a rail system in which trains on dedicated, improved tracks, similar to those in densely populated areas of Japan, travel smoothly and safely at speeds up to 110 mph throughout a network of cities including Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Chicago, and other cities in the region.

A Detroit-Toledo-Cleveland line alone would attract an estimated 1.6 million riders annually by 2025 and generate more than $40 million in revenue a year, according to the Ohio Rail Development Commission. It could be built at a cost ranging from $135 million to $305 million, a tiny fraction of what this country spends to build a defense system whose glass jaw was exposed by a sucker punch thrown by tiny bands of terrorists.

The intercity rail system would pack a powerful economic revival punch. It would require ancillary modes of transportation, perhaps small electric, hybrid, or hydrogen-powered cars, all of which are technically feasible. It might be supplemented by new, fast, efficient systems of moving people throughout the metropolitan regions. Non-express trains could serve as people movers in and near metropolitan regions.

Residents of larger cities like Chicago already have such systems in place. Innovative thinking would be required to solve problems of moving travelers in smaller metro regions like Toledo. A metro bus system much larger than the TARTA operation would be needed. There would be a place for smaller cars here, too. Admittedly, this system would require a revolution in American thinking and attitudes about transportation. This is not a pipe dream. Sooner or later we will have to disenthrall ourselves from old ideas and adopt new ones.

Over-reliance on air travel is wrong. Swift and reliable point-to-point rail should be an equal player in America’s transportation network.

Instead, the GOP leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives, trapped in old-think, wants to further starve the Amtrak system, which admittedly needs reform. As Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, put it so cogently: "There is no way Amtrak can shrink its way to financial health."

Passenger rail service, whether linking cities in a densely populated region or national lines serving the rest of the nation, is as vital to the nation’s welfare as its electric grid, its water systems, its gas and oil pipelines, and its air transport network. To quibble, as the Republican House leadership is doing, over a few hundred million dollars in false economies, when dealing with a utility that serves all the people in a federal union such as ours, is more than just stupid. It is contemptible.

Wednesday, October 2, 2002

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