In The Public Interest : Fast Trains Don't Belong to Either Party

Now that Republicans have made substantial gains in both houses of Congress and taken the Governor's mansion in several states, pundits and passenger rail critics have been quick to write obituaries for President Obama's vision of a national high-speed network. Doing so is both premature and unwise.

While electoral politics and the stimulus bill have recently cast high-speed rail as a partisan talking point, one need only look back a short time to see ample evidence of bipartisan support for high-speed rail. In 2000, the Republican Party Platform included the following:

"Republicans support a healthy intercity passenger rail system, and where economically viable, the development of a national high-speed passenger railroad system as an instrument of economic development, and enhanced mobility."

Or look at the list of Republican cosponsors for then-Senator Biden's (D-DE) 2001 High-Speed Rail Investment Act, which included staunch conservatives Jessie Helms (R-NC) and Rick Santorum (R-PA). More recently, in 2008, Trent Lott and Frank Lautenberg worked across the aisle to pass the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act that funded Amtrak and authorized a high-speed rail program. Although Eric Cantor (R-VA) opposed the stimulus as minority House whip, he supported recovery dollars that went towards the Richmond to D.C. rail line.

While Wisconsin governor-elect Scott Walker turned high-speed rail into a wedge issue during his campaign, it did not emerge as such in the otherwise highly contentious Illinois governor's race. If Walker decides to give back federal high-speed rail money, it will certainly be a major setback for Wisconsin, costing state taxpayers millions of dollars and over 400 jobs that would have been created by a train manufacturer that will most likely be forced to leave the state. Still, high-speed rail enjoys strong political support around the country, with Illinois and New York already lining up to take the money for their own high-speed rail projects.

Regardless of which party is in control when it happens, thirty rail manufacturing firms have committed to set up or expand operations in the United States if the country makes a clear commitment to building a high-speed rail network.

Today, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S.PIRG) released a report that provides international evidence of the considerable economic, environmental, and consumer benefits of high-speed rail. Building a national high-speed rail network is a smart investment in our future that will also create jobs now for America's crippled construction and vehicle manufacturing industries.

The international experience with high-speed rail also shows that the construction of high-speed rail stations generates economic development and boosts property values if built in high-traffic corridors in urban centers. High-speed rail can also deliver the broader economic benefit of fostering closer connections between people and businesses by reducing the distance between them. If a high-speed rail line went through Hartford, Connecticut for example, it would increase the number of jobs within 90 minutes of the city from 1.4 million to 7 million.

The development of high-speed rail can also be part of the solution to America's dependence on oil. State-of-the-art high-speed trains could run on electricity, rather than fuel, but even diesel-powered trains are more energy-efficient than car and air travel. Even with Amtrak's generally old engines, passengers have smaller carbon foot prints, with rail travel emitting 60 percent less carbon dioxide per mile than car travelers, and 66% less than air travelers. Modern trains in Europe and Japan are even more energy efficient, and Swedish high-speed rail runs with near-zero emissions on fully renewable power.

High-speed rail would also directly improve the quality of life for large numbers of Americans. High-speed trains would mean less time spent on clogged highways and in crowded airports. It would give travelers more choice, providing them with a more comfortable, reliable, and convenient mode of transportation. Rather than spending hours getting to and from airports and standing in long lines at security, people would be able to hop on a train that would take them right to the center of a city.

To ensure that high-speed rail has a future in America, Congress must act to include a long-term, dedicated funding stream for it in the next surface transportation bill. New Transportation & Infrastructure Chairman John Mica has been a champion of high-speed rail in the past, and he will be relied on to continue the fight within his party. The early signs are encouraging. According to the soon-to-be Majority's website, "Committee Republicans will work to ensure that additional funds are allocated to projects that make sense, will minimize costs to taxpayers and will deliver true high-speed rail service."

With the American economy still plagued by high unemployment, now is the time for both parties to work together and get serious about building a high-speed rail network in America.