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Opinion: The case for high-speed rail

(The Charlotte Observer posted the following column by Carroll Gray on its website on May 12.)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- We are so close to achieving high-speed rail in the Southeast I can almost hear the boarding call. What makes this significant for Charlotte and our region is the potential high-speed rail holds for creating a new, efficient way of connecting the Southeast's business centers.

The Southeast enjoyed phenomenal growth over the last 20 years, and our businesses benefited from the larger customer base and economic development opportunities. But the growth has outpaced the capacity of our roads and airports. Traffic planners predict congestion on our freeways will increase 400 percent by 2020. More than one in every four flights was late in 2002.

For high-speed rail to provide the needed relief from congestion, it should be designed for the business traveler as an alternative to short-haul air travel. Studies prove travelers prefer high-speed rail to air for trips between business centers less than 300 miles apart.

Imagine boarding a train at the multimodal station in Charlotte and arriving in Raleigh in less than three hours, or Atlanta in less than four. Imagine that time spent productively, with cell phone and laptop computer access the entire way, and room to confer with colleagues.

The Charlotte Chamber and the chambers in Raleigh, Winston-Salem and Greensboro are part of the Southeastern Economic Alliance, a coalition of 15 chambers of commerce across six states working to implement high-speed rail in the Southeast.

The alliance has developed a breakthrough business model that proves the system can operate without ongoing federal subsidies.

This new model is based on sound business principles, including:

-- Separate operations from infrastructure. The government should make the initial investment in infrastructure, as it did with roads and airports. Currently, rail funding makes up less than 1 percent of the $57 billion the federal government spends yearly on transportation infrastructure.

-- Operate the network based on city pairs, rather than continuous long-distance routes. Business travelers will choose high-speed rail for short-haul trips if the service caters to peak demand.

-- Open operations to private competition. Our financial projections give every indication a private company can make a profit operating high-speed rail service in the Southeast.

-- Partner with freight rail companies to ensure capacity is preserved or improved. The Southeast's economy depends on freight's ability to move goods efficiently throughout the region, thereby eliminating trucks from the roads. High-speed passenger rail should have dedicated tracks so it won't impede freight's capacity.

The state of North Carolina has a legacy of leadership in this effort, especially governors Jim Hunt and Jim Martin. As a result, the Charlotte-D.C. route is one of the most advanced in the country. Hunt continues his high-speed rail push by serving as the Southeastern Economic Alliance co-chair for North Carolina.

Cooperation with other states is essential to effectively link business centers in the Southeast up to D.C. and down to Atlanta. This year, members of Congress across the Southeast are working together to seek funding for the Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor. To get this plan moving we need commitment from all of the North Carolina delegation as well as our state legislators.

We still have work to do before we hear that boarding call. But now we've got a viable business model, 15 chambers, a coalition of business leaders and members of Congress who can see the future.

The Southeast is ready, and it's time to get the train moving -- and fast.

(Carroll Gray is the president of the Charlotte Chamber and a member of the Southeastern Economic Alliance.)

Monday, May 12, 2003

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