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Avoid an infrastructure disaster with transportation reforms, former elected officials warn

New high-speed rail and other innovations in transportation are necessary to ease an aging and crowded infrastructure, business and government officials said Tuesday.
By Vesko Cholakov -- Medill News Service   |   Feb. 7, 2014 at 7:08 AM   |   Comments

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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. should spend more money to increase high-speed rail systems as part of a long-term transportation bill because the country is facing an “infrastructure disaster,” former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Tuesday at a panel discussion America on the Move organized by Bloomberg Government.

LaHood and others pushed for more reliance on passenger rail as a way to ease an aging transportation infrastructure, especially in the crowded Northeast.

The congested transportation corridors in the Northeast require novel solutions -- a "system approach" of public transportation incorporating several modes of transportation, said Victor Mendez, acting U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation, during a transportation forum hosted by Bloomberg Government.

A high-speed Maglev train project, partially financed by the Japanese government, is under discussion to connect Washington and Baltimore, and investors hope for a 2022 launch, said Ed Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania and co-chair of Building America's Future, a bipartisan coalition of elected officials.

"I think you can see some movement in the next 18 months," he said.

Conventional Maglev trains reach 267 mph by using magnets instead of wheels to levitate above special guideways. The magnets lift the trains and propel them.

Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, put forward the proposal last February at a meeting with President Barack Obama.

We have a "guy" in the White House with vision, said LaHood, a Republican who was Obama’s secretary of transportation from 2009 to 2013. "We need people on Capitol Hill who have this vision."

"American people get it, they understand," said Rendell who last November rode a 314 mph bullet train just outside Tokyo with "no sway back and forth" -- "almost an amusement park ride."

"Almost every referendum in the country has passed when it comes to infrastructure," he said.

Since the 2000 introduction of Acela, which averages up to 70 mph, Amtrak has captured 75 percent of the passenger air and rail market between Washington and New York in 2011, up from 37 percent in 2000.

Mendez said improving and increasing rail transportation will require financial help from the private sector.

“We barely have enough money to maintain the infrastructure that we have,” said an official from the House subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials in an interview.

“If we were more confident in future ridership numbers,” financing problems wouldn’t be severe, Joe Nation, a public policy professor at Stanford University, said in a telephone interview.

Last November, a Sacramento Superior Court judge stopped the California High-Speed Rail Authority from accessing $8.6 billion for a high-speed rail link between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The project had been approved by a referendum but the court barred the state from selling bonds for project.

The California High Speed Rail Authority has been overstating ridership numbers and underestimating the cost, Nation said. The cost -- projected at $33 billion in 2008 -- swelled to $68 billion in 2011 and $91 billion in 2012, according to the authority.

A proponent of rail transportation, Nation warned that high-speed trains work in densely populated areas and California is not one of them.

House transportation committee chairman Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said too that federal efforts and funds should be focused on the Northeast Corridor, which connects cities from Boston to Washington, with successful results replicated in other areas like San Diego and Los Angeles.

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