Expansion of U.S. railway travel urged
By Sarah Karush
By Sarah Karush
WASHINGTON — Experts convened by a federal transportation policy commission are recommending a $357.2 billion investment — averaging $8.1 billion a year — to significantly expand intercity passenger rail service by 2050.
The recommendations were released last week by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission's passenger rail working group.
The ideas have been adopted by the commission and are expected be part of its final report to Congress, said Frank Busalacchi, Wisconsin's secretary of transportation and the commissioner who convened the working group. But a spokesman for Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said the commission has not officially endorsed the plan.
"The secretary will review this and all other reports submitted to the commission for consideration," spokesman Brian Turmail said.
The country should rebuild and expand its rail network to meet a growing demand for alternatives to congested highways, the report said. It cited several benefits of train travel, including safety, energy efficiency, and providing alternatives to driving as the population ages.
BUSY PASSENGER ROUTES
Expanding rail travel on heavily traveled corridors of a few hundred miles also can help alleviate airport congestion, the report said.
"The majority of the public are going to continue to use the automobile," Busalacchi told the Associated Press. "But if we make it reliable, clean and convenient, people will take the train."
The commission, chaired by the transportation secretary, was formed by Congress in 2005 to study the future needs of nation's surface transportation system and funding options. A final report is expected in January.
Busalacchi, chairman of the States for Passenger Rail Coalition, said he formed the passenger rail working group because of a lack of comprehensive data about the country's rail network.
The group's members are proponents of rail travel and include representatives of Amtrak and the National Association of Railroad Passengers, as well as state and regional transportation officials.
"For the last 50 years ... the nation has had no vision for intercity passenger rail," the report said. "In many parts of the nation, rail lines have been abandoned. Our federal funding policy emphasis has been on the highway and aviation systems, which are now congested."
Since 1971, when Congress relieved freight railroads of their obligations to provide passenger service, intercity passenger rail in the U.S. has meant Amtrak. But Busalacchi said expansion of the network does not necessarily have to be done by the government-owned corporation.
"I don't think anybody is taking the position that Amtrak is going to have a monopoly on this," he said.
UPGRADE IT, THEN ADD TO IT
What is certain, however, is that federal funding will be needed, Busalacchi said.
The report calls for federal matching funds to help states establish rail corridors. Amtrak, which has contracts with 14 states to provide corridor service, has been pushing for matching funds. The report said the federal government should pay 80 percent of the cost, while the states would pay 20 percent — the same ratio that is used for highways. Such projects could be funded by a portion of the gas tax that currently pays for highways and transit, the report said.
The plan is broken down into three phases. By 2015, existing service would be upgraded and new service that is already in the pipeline could be added. That would include parts of a high-speed rail corridor in California and a rail link from Milwaukee to Madison, Wis. The estimated cost of the first phase is $66.3 billion.
By 2030, the California high-speed corridor would be completed and new corridors — such as Los Angeles to Las Vegas; Tulsa to St. Louis; and Salt Lake City to Boise — would be added. The second phase is forecast to cost $158.6 billion.
By 2050, even more routes — such as Louisville, Ky., to Cincinnati and Raleigh, N.C., to Greenville, S.C. — would be added and existing service would be upgraded in many places. The last phase is projected to cost $132.3 billion.