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Olver: High-Speed Rail Program Important for Strong Economy

Any driver who has sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic and listened to radio reports about how Americans have the longest commuting times of any developed nation knows that our transportation network needs improvement.

At its core, the goal of our national transportation system is to move passengers and commercial goods from point to point as safely and efficiently as possible. Our current reality, however, is one of congested roads, delayed arrivals and rapidly aging infrastructure. Inevitably, the challenges we face will only get tougher as our population is expected to grow by 40 percent during the next four decades.

Moving forward, meeting our goal will require federal policy that re-evaluates the relative emphasis that is placed on each mode of transportation. While continued investments in our highways and airports are necessary, we must also acknowledge that improvements to these two modes cannot meet all the demand upon the system.

The Department of Transportation estimates that, by 2035, numerous highways linking major urban areas will experience significant congestion, and a report by the MITRE Corp. found that capacity limitation will constrain air traffic at 14 major airports even if planned improvements are carried out through 2025.

In my view, intercity passenger rail — in particular, high-speed rail — represents an underutilized transportation resource. Within the United States, our passenger rail network largely operates on a system that was built at the turn of the 20th century and is now shared with and dispatched by freight railroads. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is an exception to this, but even along that route, speeds are only about half of what other foreign systems are able to achieve. By comparison, Europe, Japan and China have each spent tens of billions of dollars to develop high-speed networks that are capable of carrying passengers between major metropolitan areas at faster than 200 mph.

In February 2009, President Barack Obama announced his commitment to developing a 21st-century passenger rail system, and he included $8 billion for HSR in his stimulus legislation. This is the most visionary transportation initiative since President Dwight Eisenhower initiated the Interstate Highway System.

The president was not the first to recognize the opportunity high-speed rail presents. In 1991, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act called for the designation of five high-speed rail corridors, which has since grown to 11 corridors.

In 2008, a strong majority of voters in California committed almost $10 billion in taxpayer dollars to developing a world-class, high-speed intercity passenger rail system to connect the major population centers of the state. Furthermore, in October 2008, Congress passed the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, which laid the groundwork for today’s program.

The president’s vision for the potential of HSR has been validated by the outpouring of pent-up demand demonstrated in each of the three grant application rounds for the funding provided by the stimulus. Most recently, 24 states, Washington, D.C., and Amtrak requested more than $10 billion in federal rail funding. These states recognize the economic opportunities that a viable high-speed system presents.

First, these projects will create immediate construction jobs. California estimates that more than 600,000 construction-related jobs will be created during the life of the project. Second, rail hubs increase economic opportunities for the immediate region. Finally, these passenger rail corridors will produce as much as 60 percent less carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere.

Still, it is very frustrating to hear the repeated claims of opponents of high-speed rail who ridicule the program as having no plan. Admittedly, the details of where every tie and rail will be laid have not been specified. However, when the Interstate Highway System was initiated and the first concrete was poured in Kansas and Missouri, no formal plan was in place either. In the case of HSR, states and regional compacts have been developing planning frameworks for years. For instance, California created a high-speed rail authority in 1996, and in my own state of Massachusetts, we began planning the Knowledge Corridor — a high-speed rail route running through Western Massachusetts — in 2008.

Furthermore, projects that have received grant funding have been well-defined, including a recent award for $450 million to replace antiquated catenary wires in a long stretch of the Northeast Corridor to increase maximum speeds to 160 mph.

At the end of the day, a strong economy depends on a solid transportation foundation. A fast, safe and efficient HSR network should be a fundamental component of that foundation.

Rep. John Olver (D-Mass.) is ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies.

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