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High-speed rail: Obama 'signature' issue.

For decades, a hardy band of rail advocates--routinely ignored--has pressed for a modern rail passenger system in America.

So imagine their incredulous joy when Congress' massive economic stimulus bill suddenly included a massive commitment of $8 billion to construct high-speed rail systems--the most startling national pledge to rail since the Pacific Railway Act under President Lincoln.

And who was responsible for the last-minute insertion of the $8 billion, far beyond what either the House or Senate had initially approved? Barack Obama. White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel specifically asked the Senate-House negotiators to insert it. "I put it in there for the president," Emanuel told Politico in an interview. "The president wanted to have a signature issue in the bill, his commitment for the future."

Obama personally told long-term rail advocate John Robert Smith, mayor of Meridian, Miss., that he'd have preferred the stimulus bill figure be even greater--$10 billion.

And Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told National Public Radio: "I do think this is the transformational issue for this administration when it comes to transportation. I think President Obama would like to be known as the high-speed rail president, and I think he can be."

Obama's new budget goes beyond the $8 billion, asking another $5 billion high-speed rail commitment over five years.

It's true that Congress, after years of general indifference, has recently been giving Amtrak, our national passenger rail service, more support. But the change at the White House--President Bush actually advocated zero-funding of Amtrak--couldn't be more dramatic.

Asserts James RePass, founder-leader of the 20-year-old National Corridors Initiative: "Suddenly, by the grace of God, we have a president who absolutely, positively gets it." This signifies, he adds, an end to the reign of "the ideological libertarians out to destroy the transportation system by saying 'the market' will take care of it, that Amtrak should make a profit--which is nuts!"

A point of reality: Even $8 billion won't go far to build a system that registers speeds that match the 180 miles per hour that is routine on European and Japanese trains. The closest might be achieved in California, where a $9 billion bond issue to start building a Sacramento-San Francisco Bay Area-San Diego rapid rail line was approved last tall. Insiders say it might get about $2 billion from the new federal funds pool.

In most other regions, suggests Ross Capon of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, the money most likely will go for improvements to today's train service--better equipment, bridges to replace grade crossings, and adding double tracks to allow faster movement of trains and fewer conflicts with freight rails using the same tracks.

The result of the added track along existing rights-of-way could be radically improved timing, eliminating the inexorable delays Amtrak trains now so often suffer. Other funding could go to purchase new locomotives, to refurbish or replace Amtrak's aging fleet of rail passenger cars. The more frequent and reliable that service becomes, the more traveling Americans are likely to be won over from auto or air travel.

One corridor that's a prime candidate for upgrading is the economically hard-hit Midwest--and not just because Obama and LaHood are both from Illinois. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association has been pressing for years for funds to develop a Chicago-centered Midwest network including St. Louis, Cleveland, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Detroit--cities Obama has said he'd like to see linked by high-speed rail as an alternative to air travel.

Other corridor candidates include the Pacific Northwest (Seattle-Portland-Eugene), South Central (San Antonio-Dallas-Tulsa), Florida (Miami-Orlando-Tampa), Northern New England/New York (Boston-Springfield-Albany-Buffalo), and Southeast-Gulf Coast (linking Raleigh, Charlotte, Atlanta, New Orleans and Houston). Major improvements are needed on the existing Northeast Corridor (Washington-Boston), where Acela trains still run at about half the speed of France's TGV service.

On top of all that, the stimulus bill makes a significant infusion of $8.4 billion into public transit--fiscally flailing bus and subway systems that find their ridership rising fast even as local funding sources contract.

The magic of rail and transit investments is their multiple benefit. In the short term, they're excellent recession fighters. Upgrading rail lines, for example, requires lots of blue-collar labor. Public transit employs so many people that $1 billion in transit funding creates 22,000 jobs, 70 percent more than defense spending and 30 percent or more than a tax cut, according to University of Massachusetts economist Robert Pollin.

Just as crucial, rail and transit are intrinsically "green," offering deep and lasting energy savings and climate-saving carbon reductions that the oil-dependent auto-truck sector simply can't equal. And they mean investment in a more diversified, resilient American transportation system, a more competitive nation, for the century. A "signature issue" for President Obama? How could he do better?

Neal Peirce's e-mail address is

[c] 2009, The Washington Post Writers Group

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Author:Peirce, Neal
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 9, 2009
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