All aboard: the rush to rail

The Baltimore Sun

If you were paying attention on Election Day, you probably felt the jolt. The train has finally left the station.

Actually, trains are beginning to leave the station all over the country. This month, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will inaugurate the Rail Runner, a new commuter line linking Albuquerque and Santa Fe. California voters just approved $10 billion to start building a high-speed rail line that will stretch from San Diego to Sacramento. In Colorado, transportation planners are talking seriously about a "front range" line that would connect Colorado Springs, Denver, Fort Collins and other communities along the eastern edge of the Rockies.

Trains are once again moving onto the public agenda here at home as well. Maryland has revived plans for the Purple Line, the first stage of a circumferential rail line linking the terminal stations of the various Washington, D.C., Metro lines in suburban Maryland. Northern Virginia just received the good news that the federal government will support the Silver Line, a Metro extension running to Dulles Airport. In Baltimore, there is a push to build the Red Line, an east-west corridor that would turn the city's north-south light rail line into a more functional citywide rail system. There is even talk of linking Maryland transit lines with the Virginia Railway Express.

Like so much else that has happened during the George W. Bush years, these projects have been initiated by and often funded by the states, with minimal help from the federal government. But Congress has begun to follow the states' lead, authorizing record funding for Amtrak improvements in the popular Northeast corridor and creating grant programs to provide more than $3 billion to states to expand rail services over the next five years.

"We've built the first half of our transportation system," says Jim Charlier, a transportation planner from Colorado, referring to the Interstate Highway System. "Now we have to start building the second half."

On behalf of a coalition of housing, environmental, public health, urban planning, transportation, real estate and business groups, Mr. Charlier has drafted an ambitious plan to link the 10 biggest "mega-regions" of the United States by high-speed rail by 2030. The coalition hopes the nation will embark on a program to build a rail system with the same gusto Americans displayed in the 1960s when President John F. Kennedy set a goal of landing a man on the moon.

There is growing evidence the public likes the idea. In November, voters approved at least 23 rail initiatives nationwide that together will provide $75 billion for new transportation systems, including $18 billion to expand mass transit in Seattle.

Savvy, forward-looking leaders are embarking on these costly and politically difficult projects because they know that soon they will have no choice:

* America cannot reduce emissions that cause climate change without a strategy to get people out of their cars and reduce "vehicle miles traveled."

* In the "post-petroleum era," the ever-higher cost of fuel will eventually render gas-powered vehicles too expensive for moving people or freight.

* The federal highway trust fund is broke, highways are no longer seen as a cure for congestion, and air and water pollution concerns about roads and driving can no longer be ignored.

* Finally, for national security reasons, Americans understand we have to cut our dependence on foreign oil.

What supporters of these projects have in common is the belief that an expanded rail system serves multiple purposes at a time when we can no longer afford the luxury of single-purpose investments. They see rail as a way to reduce greenhouse gases, to offset high gas prices, to mitigate or at least avoid highway congestion, and to save rural resources by fostering more compact, transit-oriented city living.

This kind of thinking is likely to get a big boost from the incoming Obama administration, which plans to set up a White House Office of Urban Policy and wants the next economic stimulus package to focus on "green" infrastructure at the state level.

A lot of important people are climbing on this train.

John W. Frece, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, is the author of "Sprawl & Politics: The Inside Story of Smart Growth in Maryland." This article is distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.

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