Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood published an op-ed in the Sunday edition of the Orlando Sentinel, arguing for a vigorous campaign of high speed rail building. He said, “If we work together, a national high-speed-rail network can and will be our generation's legacy.”
Why run the op-ed in the Sentinel and not a national paper like USA Today or the New York Times? LaHood’s comments were pointedly directed at Florida Governor-elect Rick Scott, who is making noises about following his counterparts in Wisconsin and Ohio in rejecting federal high speed rail money. And the Sentinel is the paper of record in the 7th Congressional district, represented by incoming House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica.
Mica has long said high speed rail is only practical in the Northeast Corridor, where there is sufficient density. He didn’t even want the proposed rail line to go forward in his home state until a recent, unexpected infusion of federal money made the prospects suddenly more appealing.
LaHood won’t be deterred. In his piece in yesterday’s Sentinel, he says a national high speed rail system "will spur economic development and job creation along its corridors.” It will also, he says, integrate cities, ease congestions, reduce oil dependency and emissions, and boost the manufacturing sector through Buy American provisions.
Who can argue with that? LaHood acknowledges the “naysayers” but gets their talking points wrong. According to him, critics think high speed rail construction is moving too slowly.
In fact, many critics think it’s just in the wrong places. Or it’s too expensive. Or it’s not really high speed.
Ken Orski, author of the online newsletter Innovation Briefs, supports passenger rail but told Streetsblog in an interview that the political will is lacking “to sustain a high speed rail program over the number of years that would be necessary to make this vision a reality.” He’s also not wild about the administration’s approach of “dribbling out money among umpteen states and umpteen grants rather than concentrating them on one or two corridors.”
Orski says as long as passenger rail shares a right-of-way with freight rail – which doesn’t exceed 79 miles per hour – it won’t be truly high speed.
As for Florida’s proposal high speed line from Tampa to Orlando – the target of LaHood's op-ed – Orski says it won’t work because there’s no transit system at either end to get riders to their final destinations. If people need to get in a car to get to and from the train station, they’ll just stay in their cars and drive the whole way.
That’s not how LaHood sees it. He’s making a full-court press to keep Florida on the high speed rail map. Another loss like Wisconsin and Ohio would be a major blow to the administration. “Florida is poised to become one of the first states with a true high-speed-rail line,” he wrote. “And President Obama has committed to creating or improving 4,000 miles of track as part of his plan for America's next major six-year transportation legislation.”
He says a world-class high speed rail network is possible, if Congress, the administration and the states keep their eyes on the prize.