Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Call to Action in the Morning Call

Article Link:,0,6913426.story

ACTION TO TAKE: Please write POSITIVE comments on our need for rail to the Morning Call

Reconnaissance 2009

In 2009, start to make Valley's rail connections real

December 29, 2008

Imagine speeding over the land at 200 miles per hour, reading this newspaper while having a drink and chatting with your family or business associates in absolute comfort and safety.

That is quickly becoming the reality for the rest of the world.

Over the next decade, the Chinese government is planning to spend roughly $500 billion to construct an extensive high-speed rail network. They are hardly alone. Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Russia, Germany, France, Spain and others -- the list of countries investing in high speed rail is too long to print here.

Meanwhile, the United States spent just $1.3 billion on Amtrak in 2008, or about 2 percent of the federal transportation budget.

Amtrak has been on life support for decades, receiving just enough money each year to keep it from shutting down completely. Yet, despite aging equipment and slow service, more than 28 million people rode Amtrak last year, a record.

In the 1950s, America had the fastest and most luxurious trains in the world. That was then. Today European and Asian rail networks are extensive and growing with trains that can exceed speeds of 200 mph. In a competitive world economy, we are falling far behind.

In fact, we are the only large developed country in the world that does not use the tripod of transportation: air, roads, and rail. As author James Howard Kustler says, "The United States has a passenger rail system that Bulgaria would be ashamed of." This must change -- and it is.

This past November, despite a massive recession and state budge woes, California voters approved $10 billion in state bonds to construct a high speed rail system. The bonds will help to provide the local match for partnerships with other investors, such as Uncle Sam.

Other states are watching with interest. In the Midwest, 10 states have joined forces to plan an expansive rail network with a hub in Chicago. Texas has looked at high speed rail to link Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, and numerous other states are developing state rail plans to expand passenger rail service.

If Pennsylvania does not act quickly, we will be left behind when the federal government gets serious about funding passenger rail. Other states will have solid plans and environmental clearances ready, so they will get the infrastructure dollars.

And, the United States is falling behind the rest of the world in terms of transportation. China, for example, is investing hundreds of billions of dollars in high speed rail to link its cities.

When people visit the United States from other countries, they are often shocked by our lack of viable public transportation. They act as if a basic element of modern infrastructure is missing, as if we had opted not to build something as essential to them as hospitals or fire departments.

Pennsylvania is ideal for passenger railroads. We have areas of high population density, and many of our cities and towns are already linked by rail infrastructure. We have great downtowns that are perfect for rail stations. We also have experience with high-quality passenger rail. The Keystone trains between Harrisburg and Philadelphia zip along at 110 miles per hour.

Yet, there is a common belief in other parts of the country that the "northeast" rail network is complete just because we already have the Northeast Corridor connecting Boston to Washington D.C. We already have trains in New York and Philadelphia, so what else do we need?

The Lehigh Valley has more than 800,000 residents, yet we have no rail service. Meanwhile, cities like Norfolk, Va., and Phoenix, Ariz. are building light rail. This week, a new commuter train opened in Santa Fe, N.M., a city with only 72,000 residents ( Allentown has over 100,000). Clearly, our rail network is nowhere near as extensive as it needs to be.

A state rail plan is needed to bring rail service to all of Pennsylvania's population centers. Trains must be frequent, reliable, and fast. Such a network will help our local economies remain competitive, create jobs, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and will provide an option for residents to travel quickly and safely.

Paul J. Marin of Allentown is the chair of the Transportation Committee of the Lehigh Valley