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The Slow Track 

The dream of riding between Richmond, Washington and New York at 150 mph is not a dream, but it will take considerable time to achieve. The best approach is simply to begin by not going slow.

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Style Weekly's July 15 cover story, “The Magic Bullet,” suggests that high-speed rail connecting Richmond to Washington and destinations on the Northeast Corridor is simply a dream, and that if it is not superfast high-speed rail, 150 miles per hour and faster, it's not worth the effort.

I disagree.

High-speed rail is about more than simply going fast; it's also about more frequent service and, importantly, more reliable service. These are the benefits that Virginia's application for high-speed rail funds should bring, in effect upgrading the Washington-to-Richmond corridor from conventional rail to emerging high-speed rail that will result in the three 90s: a 90 mph top speed, a 90-minute trip between Washington and Richmond and a 90-percent on-time performance with increased service.

These improvements may not seem like a lot, but when compared with the current passenger rail service available to central Virginia, they are a large improvement. Present service offers a 79-mph top speed, but the reality is closer to between 40 and 50 mph. Reliability is even worse. Amtrak trains between Washington, Richmond and Newport News average an on-time performance of 56 percent. One of every two times Richmonders take trains they won't arrive at their destination on time. That is unacceptable. Doesn't our community deserve a true multimodal transportation system? Our trains should work with our airports, interstates and buses to deliver our citizens from point A to point B quickly and efficiently. Rational transportation and environmental policy must reach beyond pouring more asphalt for highways traveled by more internal combustion engines. That approach has only left us mired in time-wasting — and enormously costly — traffic jams.

Incremental change that can bring fast, frequent and reliable rail service is the sensible approach. When Amtrak's president and chief executive, Joe Boardman, came to Richmond in May to speak at an event sponsored by Virginians for High Speed Rail and the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce, he said of the federal government's investment in high-speed rail: “The best way to go fast is not to go slow.”

In order to achieve express high-speed rail, we must first fix the bottlenecks and issues that keep our passenger trains from being reliable and therefore an attractive option. That's the idea behind the Federal Railroad Administration's approach of having multitiered high-speed rail categories. Level one is emerging high-speed rail, which will achieve 90 mph on a mixed-use corridor (with freights and commuter rail); next is regional high-speed rail, which travels as fast as 110 mph on a partially dedicated corridor (meaning only passenger trains); and finally, express high-speed rail, which can achieve 150 mph and faster on a dedicated corridor. The dream of riding between Richmond, Washington and New York at 150 mph is not a dream, but it will take considerable time to achieve. The best approach is simply to begin by not going slow.

When the federal stimulus money of $8 billion for high-speed rail was first announced, there were many questions about where the federal government would invest it. Would it go to one 150 mph corridor, or would it go toward advancements on multiple corridors? The answer is the reasonable one: We will begin by building our passenger rail corridors to emerging high-speed rail status on a path toward express high-speed rail where it will prove worthwhile. But this will take years, just as it did for the European and Asian countries that operate express high-speed rail corridors.

It took decades and hundreds of billions of dollars to build America's interstate highways. The stimulus funding represents the first time the federal government has come forward with the resources necessary to truly invest in high-speed rail. For that $8 billion in federal high-speed rail funds, $102 billion worth of pre-application requests have been submitted. The demand for better, faster and more reliable passenger rail transportation is truly substantial. In Virginia, we're very excited to have the bipartisan support of Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb, Reps. Eric Cantor and Bobby Scott, former Sen. John Warner, Mayor Dwight Jones and our General Assembly members, in addition to the business and environmental communities. There aren't many things our community agrees on so completely as the need to work together to have a world-class transportation system.

There's much to be optimistic about. In addition to the $8 billion in stimulus money, President Obama sought an additional $1 billion per year for the next five years for high-speed rail, and on Thursday, July 23, the House of Representatives increased the president's request to $4 billion for the first year. Additionally, the outline of the Surface Transportation Reauthorization legislation, which is beginning to move through Congress, suggests $50 billion for high-speed rail. This is a small fraction of the money we've invested in our interstate system, but in the spirit of Neil Armstrong, this is one small step for America could ultimately be a giant leap for Richmond and Virginia. S

Daniel L. Plaugher is executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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