Region is ideal for federal rail dollars
President Obama and Congress demonstrated foresight and strong leadership when including $8 billion in grants for high-speed and intercity passenger rail projects in this year’s economic stimulus package. The U.S. lags far behind the rest of the world in utilizing this efficient transit infrastructure and the decision to embrace rail will not only jumpstart a new economic period for the nation, but will help reduce road congestion, carbon emissions and dependence on foreign oil.High-speed rail has proven itself in Japan, where it first launched in 1964, and in France, where service continues to expand with routes inside and outside the country. The trains have replaced air travel between many cities because of easier check-in, boarding and security procedures, shorter travel times and downtown station locations. America’s only high-speed line – the Acela Express between Boston and Washington, D.C. – has boosted Amtrak’s share of air and rail travel along the Northeast Corridor line to 60 percent, up from less than 20 percent before its introduction in 2000.Some may doubt that car-obsessed Americans will trade their keys for a ticket. But once trains become a speedy and attractive option for medium-distance trips, as the high-speed rail initiative aims to set in motion, it will become an obvious choice.Investment in rail will create jobs in numerous fields including planning, design and construction – both for tracks and stations – as well as daily management, operation and maintenance positions. According to the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, each $1 billion invested in high-speed rail could create 7,500 new permanent jobs. Transit-oriented development around new or renovated stations also will encourage business growth.Indirectly, boosting train ridership will contribute to the entire economy’s productivity by cutting time-wasting congestion on roads and leaving more room for freight-hauling trucks. A decrease in car travel will also reduce the number of automobile accidents, saving lives and reducing health-care expenditures.The New England Council wholeheartedly commends the rail initiative, but is cognizant that funding is limited. More than 250 project applications have been submitted nationwide requesting $57 billion. This winter, the Federal Railroad Administration will decide which proposed projects will get the go-ahead. We strongly urge it to consider incremental improvements to the New England region’s railroads.With only $8 billion available, ambitious, multibillion-dollar projects should be postponed. Funding should be distributed among those states that can immediately maximize the impact of rail on the economy.New England is the most densely populated region in the country, contains some of the most highly used rail systems, and is already home to the nation’s only existing high-speed line. Strengthening the already vibrant train infrastructure in New England will serve as a successful model for the rest of the country and will not require exorbitant start-up costs or the difficult process of securing rights-of-way for new tracks.While we have rail resources in place, and have identified a range of near-term projects to stimulate our regional economy, there is much to do. Our region’s leaders must continue working together and pushing projects forward to ensure we do not lose the opportunities high-speed rail presents.In addition, Congress must continue to fund high-speed rail in the future and act on the president’s proposal to budget $1 billion for trains each of the next five years. It’s a commitment to a more robust economy, a cleaner environment and the future.James Brett is president and chief executive of The New England Council.