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Building a 21st-century transportation system will take the same commitment and vision that, nearly 60 years ago, launched the interstate highway system.
President Obama has taken a bold and laudable step by proposing to spend $6.6 billion on high-speed rail and related projects next year — and $40 billion over five years to improve intercity passenger service, develop new high-speed rail corridors, and upgrade freight rail.
Equally important, the President wants to plan a national rail network that would change how Americans travel and live. To get there, he proposes rebranding the federal Highway Trust Fund as the Transportation Trust Fund, and making Amtrak’s subsidies a mandatory part of it. The current highway fund covers roads, bridges, and transit, but not passenger rail, which depends on grants.
Mr. Obama has the right idea. Meeting the nation’s 21st century economic, environmental, mobility, and security needs demands a more balanced transportation system, including high-speed rail. The President wants 80 percent of Americans to have access to high-speed rail service within 25 years.
Yet four years after Mr. Obama declared high-speed rail a national priority, the financial and political obstacles appear greater than ever. Much of Congress opposes high-speed rail; House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) calls it a “boondoggle.”
Larger investments in high-speed passenger rail and Amtrak, while essential, will require new revenue or increases in current user fees, even if states commit more money to their projects. So far, Mr. Obama has provided few details about where the money would come from, other than citing a so-called peace dividend — savings from winding down U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. His administration must do a better job of working with Congress if it wants this plan to move forward.
Political support for high-speed rail should pick up as new projects start operating and record ridership continues, including aging Baby Boomers. A marquee project between San Francisco and Los Angeles is set to start construction this year. With speeds up to 220 miles per hour, it would become this country’s first bullet train. Illinois is making a $1.1-billion upgrade to the Amtrak route between Chicago and St. Louis that will raise top train speeds from 79 to 110 mph.
In Michigan, Amtrak has established 110-mph speeds in part of the Chicago-Detroit corridor, and plans track upgrades between Ypsilanti and Kalamazoo. Eventually, running times between Detroit and Chicago will drop to 4 hours from 5½, making train commutes competitive with air service.
Unfortunately, Ohio will not benefit directly from the President’s proposal. The state will continue to watch its tax dollars go to projects in other states. Ohio has no active passenger rail program, even for planning, even though it sits in the middle of major interstate corridors.
The state’s outdated $7 billion transportation budget focuses almost exclusively on asphalt and concrete. Gov. John Kasich’s lack of interest in rail virtually ensures that the federal government will not make investments here.
Trains reduce demand for foreign oil, ease traffic and congestion, and improve air quality. Mr. Obama’s plan provides a much-needed road map for developing a national high-performance rail system — if he can persuade a recalcitrant Congress to get on board.