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Fast Trains Headed to Minnesota

February 25, 2009 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
Most of the federal recovery funds heading for Americans' pockets are designed to do just what's advertised: bolster our sagging support for the existing human and physical resources we need for a revitalized economy.

One notable exception comprises barely 1 percent of the $787 billion package but promises true advancement for our nation, not just recovery. That's the $8 billion reserved for fast intercity passenger rail development, a great idea whose time has finally come in America.

Minnesota stands a good chance to share in this long-delayed opportunity to create the kind of modern, efficient, comfortable and environmentally friendly transportation system already enjoyed by much of Europe and Asia.

That's because far-sighted state leaders partnering with freight railroads have spent years on early planning of fast passenger rail service to link the Twin Cities to Chicago and Duluth. These initiatives should be near the head of the line for the new federal support, which augments a $3.4 billion fund for passenger rail development signed into law last fall by former President George W. Bush.

And this is likely only the beginning of federal investment in fast intercity rail, which should brighten the long-term hopes of Minnesota cities such as Albert Lea, Rochester and Willmar for their own passenger rail connections. Their plans are less developed in terms of engineering and policy consensus, but the current federal commitment won't be the last train out of the station.

New U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has promised "in subsequent years a very substantial effort" to continue fast passenger rail development across up to six regions of the country. "This is going to be President Obama's, I believe, top transportation priority," LaHood said.

Obama himself noted this month that China, with 5,000 miles of bullet-train routes under development, has "high-speed rail that puts our railroads to shame." Passenger rail funding was added to the recovery package at the urging of the White House, supplementing more than $35 billion included earlier for roads, bridges and urban transit.

This new commitment offers myriad benefits, according to a federal study: improved safety, energy conservation, highway congestion relief, environmental protection, economic development, emergency preparedness, mobility for the aging and global competitiveness.

In Minnesota alone, planned routes from Duluth to Minneapolis and St. Paul to Winona (on the way to Chicago) are projected to bring more than 15,000 new jobs, $648 million in added personal income, nearly $2 billion in higher property values and up to $2.3 billion in savings from reducing travel times, congestion and pollution.

LaHood said his department will deliver passenger rail and other transportation infrastructure funds to the states before the end of June. It's up to Minnesota officials to do all they can to ensure that our state gets its fair share of this historic initiative.

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