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Feb 172011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

If you like trains, now would be a good time to speak up about it. Money for Amtrak and for proposed high speed passenger trains is on the budget block, awaiting the guillotine of lawmakers in Washington who want to cut funds for all sorts of programs that could improve our lives, green our transportation and keep America working and moving toward the future.

Yes, the country is in tight straits. People are out of work. We have a budget deficit. But we  have to push on. When we have before, well, we’ve gone to the moon. We’ve turned the tide in world wars. Should getting to St. Louis be that difficult?

Several current politicians don’t think we need high speed trains to get anywhere, especially not to Madison or Miami or Cleveland. They seem rankled that high speed rail is even on the agenda, perhaps especially so because it is on the Obama Administration’s agenda, though high speed rail has supporters among Republicans too.

Me? I’d far rather see people put to work on an exciting new national rail system than running around Afghanistan with machine guns. It’s better, safer employment, with a clear end point, and costs a lot less.

It is obvious that some politicians do not hold high speed rail to be a priority. In fact, they’re apoplectic about it. The Tea Party governors in Ohio and Wisconsin returned federal stimulus money for high speed rail without a discussion or a debate. Now Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott is sending back $2.4 billion in federal money for the planned Tampa-Orlando-Miami high speed rail route. Scott says the state cannot afford its share of the project, which he estimates could cost Florida up to $3 billion by final construction.

Setting aside whether Scott’s estimate is even close to what the state would pay, it’s worth noting that the federal government had pledged to help find private resources to chip in or to cover shortfalls. Given that Scott’s not in a negotiating mood, it appears right now that no amount of persuading will get him on board.

There could be dark days ahead in the Sunshine state, where tourism brings in many billions, because of Scott’s pre-train wreck.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio called it the worst decision she’s seen a governor make during her 26 years in public service. Republican Rep. John Mica, whose district includes Orlando, called it a “huge setback for the state of Florida, our transportation, economic development, and important tourism industry.” There’s even talk that Florida’s Congressional delegation could put plans for the train back on track, albeit with an awkward schism with Scott. Tea Party meet the GOP.

But this political ping-pong begs the question: Should high speed rail be a part of our American future?

Modern trains await passengers traveling from Shanghai to Beijing. (Photo: MHSRA)

Many countries around the world have embraced high speed rail, and enjoy extensive regular train systems. From Europe to the Far East, trains are widely established and available for commuters and tourists. In America, that’s not been the case. Here trains are sometimes seen as an affront to our car culture, a threat to air travel or something from the old days, which trains that can move at 220 miles per hour certainly are not.

You’ll hear arguments against rail that strike out at Amtrak for needing federal subsidies (though every form of travel gets its share of help, through highway and airport construction money).

And you’ll hear that our country is just too big and vast for a workable national rail system, an argument that ignores 19th Century history and totally overlooks how trains can connect the dots between cities in any given region, then connect into a national system. Any kid could plot that on a Lego board.

You’ll also hear that we just cannot afford to build a national rail system, an argument that merits discussion. But once again relegates the middle and working classes to last on the list, because a fully networked train system could provide affordable transportation for working folks people who can’t always afford the airfare. Think: students, retirees, people taking a last minute trip, young families that need to buy four seats, business workers needing a day in a nearby city.

High speed rail still has many advocates, among them other governors who are happy to pick up the federal money being returned. Systems are still green lighted in California, the Northeast and the  Midwest.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says that if the Florida project cannot be put back together without Scott’s support, other states stand ready to use the money.

“This project could have supported thousands of good-paying jobs for Floridians and helped grow Florida businesses, all while alleviating congestion on Florida’s highways,” LaHood told the AP. “Nevertheless, there is overwhelming demand for high speed rail in other states that are enthusiastic to receive Florida’s funding and the economic benefits it can deliver.”

In an appeal to rail supporters this morning, Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, praised Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn for showing vision on the rail issue in his budget address this week.

Quinn, in fact, has proposed  increasing Amtrak funding by 42% and noted in his speech that demand for passenger rail across Illinois, not just in Chicago, is “at an all-time high, reaching a record 2 million riders on Amtrak in the past year.”

“We’re leading the nation in building a robust and efficient high-speed rail network,” Quinn said.  “The promise of high-speed rail has already brought new manufacturers to Illinois and new private investment to our communities…   We believe in high-speed rail.”

Harnish urges those who also believe to call their Congressional representatives. Soon.

To find out more:

  • Visit the MHSRA website, where there’s a page about how to contact elected leaders.
  • Join or contact “Stand Up for Trains” which is organizing proponents in Florida and Michigan and Iowa to tell their elected officials that they support train development.
  • The Midwest high speed rail network would put 9 cities within three hours of hub Chicago.

    Copyright © 2011 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network