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Getting High Speed Rail on the Right Track

February 11, 2010 By Philip Freyre, Policy Research Associate
On January 28, 2010 President Obama announced $8 billion in grants for high-speed rail throughout several regions in the US. Florida, California and Illinois were the big winners, but what happened to Minnesota? The distribution of dollars was determined by ridership, viability, and the thoroughness and commitment of individual states' plans.

Service from Chicago to Madison, which is not currently served by Amtrak, received $823 million, while the remaining portion between Madison and the Twin Cities obtained roughly $1 million to be used for a route planning study. However, it establishes the foundation of a competitive system that will serve a heavily traveled corridor that sees roughly 16 daily one-way flights from Delta Airlines alone.

In December 2009 the Minnesota Department of Transportation published a comprehensive statewide freight and passenger rail plan outlining its goals and ambitions. The cornerstone of the passenger plan is a path following the current Amtrak route between the Twin Cities and Chicago provisionally named the "River Route." It traces the Mississippi River through Red Wing, MN; Winona, MN; and La Crosse, WI onto Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago.

"The St. Paul to Chicago high-speed rail line will create jobs, energize our regional economy, help reduce environmental impacts and strengthen manufacturing, service and tourism industries," advocacy group OnBoard Midwest states on its website. "The proposed rail line will help re-establish St. Paul as a multi-modal transportation hub."

Notwithstanding the current plan, in the not-so-distant past there was great service between the Twin Cities and Chicago. Between 1935 and 1963 the Chicago and Northwestern Railway operated the "Twin Cities 400," a train that traveled 400 miles in 400 minutes. It ran at more than 112 miles per hour and averaged 63 miles per hour between these two Midwestern metropolises - faster than current Amtrak service and faster than proposed high speed service.

The lesson is ultimately what happened then can work now. We don't really need a high-tech approach to today's transportation problems, we need practical solutions that have been proven over time.

The challenge that we face is that railroads are one of the most heavily taxed industries in America, not through corporate taxes, but through property taxes to the tune of tracks that are assessed at values of $1-4 million per mile on average. It is very simple to understand what happens when one mode of travel is taxed and the other is subsidized, the taxed mode disappears and the subsidized mode becomes dominant.

It's time to make transportation funding more equitable.

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