High-speed rail is right track for US

Although the city of Fort Wayne is still waiting for service to resume, the community is once again part of America’s rail system. At the local Steel Dynamics plant, factory workers are welding 28,500 tons of track, which construction workers will begin installing this spring along a New England segment of America’s national high-speed rail network.

{mosads}People often ask, “Why are President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden so devoted to high-speed rail?” I have a simple answer: Jobs, jobs and jobs.

In the short term, high-speed rail will create manufacturing and construction opportunities, like those in Fort Wayne, at a time when one in five construction workers are looking for employment. According to the Council of Economic Advisers, our initial $10.5 billion investment in high-speed rail will yield more than 85,000 quality jobs. If enacted, the president’s six-year proposal to continue building will lead to a half-million more.

To date, 30 rail companies from around the world have pledged that, if selected for high-speed rail contracts, they will hire American workers and expand their bases of operations in the United States. That is welcome news for Rust Belt communities with shuttered manufacturing facilities. And the administration’s 100 percent “Buy America” requirement will generate a powerful ripple effect throughout the supply chain. Factory workers will build locomotives and cars. Engineers will grade new routes. Conductors, operators and ticket-takers will bring passengers on their journeys. Americans of every trade will advance down the track to a better future.

Our nation’s high-speed rail network will also spur economic development along new corridors. As President Obama reminded us in his State of the Union Address, America built the Interstate Highway System and transcontinental railroad. The jobs these projects produced did not come exclusively from laying pavement or new track, though tens of thousands did. They also came from small businesses that opened near a new off-ramp or near a town’s new rail station.

Finally, high-speed rail is essential for America’s long-term economic competitiveness. It will tie together rapidly growing metropolitan communities and economies through a safe, convenient and reliable transportation alternative. It will connect 80 percent of Americans within 25 years.

Four decades from now, the United States will be home to 100 million additional people — the equivalent of another California, Texas, New York and Florida. If we settle for roads, bridges and airports that already are overburdened and insufficient, we will fight thickening congestion as we travel from one place to another. If we stand pat, tomorrow’s entrepreneurs will find clogged commercial arteries choking their productivity.

A couple of governors have nonetheless decided that this is an acceptable prospect — at least for now. But my phone is ringing off the hook with calls from elected officials convinced that high-speed rail promises enormous economic benefits for the people they serve. 

Today, we are in the same position with high-speed rail as we were with interstate highways during President Eisenhower’s administration. As with interstates during the 1950s, we have not yet drawn every single route on the map. As with interstates during the 1950s, we do not yet know what every single financing agreement will look like. 

It took 10 presidential administrations and 28 sessions of Congress to make America’s roadways the best in the world. It took big dreamers and big doers. It took leaders who were courageous enough to focus on the next generation, not just the next election. 

That is why President Obama and Vice President Biden — America’s 21st-century rail men—are committed to high-speed rail in spite of the skepticism. When we bring their vision to life, our legacy will be much more than trains, tracks and ties. It will be an American economy on the move. It will be a future that workers in Fort Wayne — and across the United States — are prepared to win.

LaHood is secretary of the Department of Transportation.

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