Howard’s blog

Midwest High-Speed Rail is Moving to Reality

The world has changed.  Just a few years ago, many people thought that high-speed rail development here was just a dream. Now, it’s moving to reality.  President Obama has made high-speed rail development his #1 national transportation priority, akin to President Eisenhower leading the build out of our interstate highway system.   The Midwest Governors and Mayor Daley are moving today to build out the Midwest high-speed rail system.

This is a structural transformation of our transportation system.  This is about improving mobility with a modern, fast, comfortable and convenient transportation option for everyone.  This is about creating jobs.  This is about economic growth and pulling together the regional economy.  This is about protecting our environment – less pollution, cleaner fuels, reducing congestion, and counteracting sprawl by pulling jobs, people and businesses downtown into our central cities.

In addition to the $8 billion in federal economic stimulus funding, the President has now proposed an additional $1 billion of appropriations in his budget this year.  However, this is not just President Obama’s initiative.  The House of Representatives is voting to quadruple that annual appropriations to $4 billion.  

Let’s be clear: what happens here in the Midwest is key to the nation’s rail future.  All eyes will be on the home region of President Obama, Chief of Staff Emanuel, Secretary LaHood, and Federal Railroad Administrator Szabo and Amtrak Chair Carper.  Critics will look for proof that this is just hometown pork.  They will search for a railroad bridge to nowhere.  And if they find one, the support we’ve gotten overnight could evaporate just as quickly.

That’s why what is good for the Midwest is good for high-speed rail and the nation.  Making the Midwest high-speed rail development work well is the key to securing our nation’s high-speed rail investment future.  Here’s how we can make it work best:

  • First, in the words of Senator Durbin and FRA Administrator Joe Szabo, we need “one region – one voice.”  We should support a regional vision of a vibrant Midwest tied together by high-speed rail connection.  By coming together today at this summit, the Midwest Governors and Mayor Daley have taken this critical first step.  The rest of us in this room need to support this vision and this cooperation.  We should praise Governors Culver and Doyle for helping bring high-speed rail to Illinois as well as to Iowa and Wisconsin; Governor Daniels for supporting better service for Michigan and Illinois, as well as for Indiana; Governor Strickland for supporting the initial three Chicago–Detroit, Chicago–St. Louis and Chicago–Milwaukee–Madison corridors, which, we hope, Ohio’s 3-C corridor will then soon join; and Governor Pawlenty for supporting investments in Wisconsin that will connect to both Minnesota and Illinois.
  • Second, let’s not let perfection stand in the way of progress.  Our vision is for 3,000 miles of passenger rail serving 65 million people in nine Midwest states.  With a vision this ambitious and complex, there are sure to be details that are less than perfect.  Let’s not permit controversies over particular stations, routes or speeds stand in the way of a united front and overall progress.
  • Third, everybody knows that sports teams play better before an enthusiastic crowd of hometown fans and supporters.  That’s us.  Through outreach to our members, our public statements and civic engagement, let’s use our voices to cheer on our Governors and the Congressional delegation.  Let’s assure them and the White House that high-speed rail funds invested in the Midwest bring with it political benefits as well as transportation and economic benefits.  Senator Durbin said this morning that he and Congressman Oberstar will be forming a bi-partisan Midwest High-Speed Rail Caucus.  That makes so much good sense – exactly what we’ve come to expect and respect from Senator Durbin. 
  • Fourth, as the Federal Railroad Administration’s rules governing this competition for federal funds make clear, this isn’t only about trains.  This is about mobility.  This is about job creation.  This is about economic development, growth and revitalization.  This is about livable communities, and less pollution and a better environment.  So, as we advance the big vision, let’s also focus on the things that can make these rail investments really succeed.  Let’s invest in our train stations, as St. Paul, Milwaukee, Springfield, St. Louis and others are doing.  Let’s bolster our transit, bus, taxi and airline connections in Chicago and other cities so that rail stations can serve as truly intermodal hubs of economic activity.  Let’s creatively build up vibrant communities around our stations, as Normal, Illinois is doing.  Let’s work to rebuild our rail manufacturing industry, as Wisconsin is doing.  And let’s expand the market by using cleaner biofuels as Governor Quinn and Governor Culver are suggesting.

Working together, we can create a win-win-win for our region: good for jobs and our economy, good for the environment, and good for people.  Let’s get on board together.

Howard Learner presented these remarks at the Midwest Governors’ High-Speed Rail Summit Meeting on July 27, 2009 in Chicago.

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