Ray LaHood pleads his case for high-speed rail at UIC Urban Forum and highlights priorities for infrastructure investment.
Ray LaHood, US Secretary of Transportation, said Thursday at the UIC Urban Forum that the time for high-speed rail in America is now.
“I believe 25 years from now, 80 percent of America will be connected by good rail service because this is what the American people want,” LaHood said. He said that high-speed rail will be President Obama’s transportation legacy.
The UIC Urban Forum brought together political and academic leaders to discuss the challenges faced in American cities and innovative strategies to improve urban lifestyles. Infrastructure was identified as a key way of integrating regions, making Secretary LaHood’s keynote address relevant to urban growth.
“This not just about President Obama’s vision, this is about common, ordinary citizens who want to get out of their cars and get on a train that’s comfortable on time and affordable,” LaHood said. “This is about having a vision for the next generation of transportation.”
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was enacted a month after Obama’s inauguration. One of the plan’s stated principles was to invest in infrastructure to promote long-term economic benefits.
LaHood said $48 billion was included for transportation in the recovery plan. Of this money, $8 billion was allocated to high-speed rail. Money was also split between roads, bridges, runways, and discretionary funding.
Jordan Snow, a researcher at UIC, said, “High speed rail could be a popular alternative for people who are not looking to drive or spend a lot of money on air fare.”
LaHood used the success of Amtrak on the Northeast corridor as an example of a rail system that is making money with ridership at an all time high. He said the ability of Amtrak to be “comfortable, affordable and on time” makes it the type of rail service that America wants.
Beyond comfort, the rail will also allow for a faster movement of people and goods. The California High Speed Rail Authority reported that ridership will increase along the Western corridor as the project expands, with up to 2.3 million riders in 2021, and 6.1 million by 2029.
High-speed rail is also intended to have economic benefits. An expected 100,000 job-years of employment is expected in California over five years of construction of the Initial Operating Section beginning in the Central Valley, the CHSRA reported. The project is also expected to create business communities along corridors.
“When you create these economic corridors you create jobs,” LaHood said. These rail corridors will be similar to the business communities that have developed off the Northeast corridor. “If you get off at Wilmington, Delaware, what do you see? Jobs. Opportunities for small businesses to hire people in the communities.”
Though the return on investment from high-speed rail is evident in existing projects, there are still competing areas of need in terms of urban transportation.
Snow said he first and foremost agreed with Secretary LaHood’s comments about high-speed rail but is also “skeptical about prospects to receive large amounts of funding due to the current national fiscal situation.”
“I think there are ways to find ways to fund capital infrastructure investments but they aren’t politically possible right now or realistic with competing interests,” Snow said.
Forrest Claypool, CTA President, also attended the UIC Urban Forum in a discussion entitled, “Paying for Past Decisions: How will pension and infrastructure expenditures affect economic recovery?” He said funding for local transit is a priority as transit systems are the veins to a productive city. “I don’t think federal government will come to the rescue,” Claypool said. “We’re going to do it ourselves here locally.”
He said that previous pension expenditures have made it difficult to reinvest in capital and close the existing $306 million deficit at the CTA.
Modernization, investment and productivity are needed to make Chicago a “world class city,” Claypool said. He said Mayor Emanuel and the city were “aggressive in leveraging other sources for capital” but he didn’t see help from the federal government coming any time soon.
LaHood said everyone has their list of roads, bridges, and railways that need to be repaired. “The issue is how we pay for it. That will be the debate in congress,” Lahood said. The existing bill is only two years, which LaHood said doesn’t allow for long range planning.
“We’re talking about a very expensive system, transit systems are very expensive.” LaHood said. “Communities don’t have all of the resources they need and so we’ve talked to the mayor about trying to leverage money from the city from money from federal government.”
Snow said if he had to prioritize between money spent on high-speed transit and local transit, he said assistance would need to go to people who are already dependent on service.
“Municipal and city level and inner city transportation by and large are in a state of disrepair,” Snow said. “That’s an issue not just of regional importance but of national importance.”
Noelle Paige, a UIC urban planning major, said that she was impressed with the honesty of officials in addressing financial struggles at the forum. She said that in a small group of students, LaHood “discussed the importance of focusing on the ‘next generation’s needs’ instead of what the nation needs now,” showing the constant tension between investment and repair of transit routes.
Furthermore, the tension between local and regional needs will continue to be a basis of discussion in infrastructure planning.
“We need to proceed with caution and fully study that every investment we make makes sense for the people we are trying to serve,” Snow said.
“Benefits for high speed rail for passengers, communities, businesses have been proven by several people but that doesn’t mean we pour our money into it without thinking.”