CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- "You all are going to be in the high-speed rail business," U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said here Wednesday. Political, transportation and business leaders from across the region applauded his statement. Though LaHood was not specific, North Carolina could receive a piece of the $1.2 billion he said would be reallocated after Ohio and Wisconsin decided "no" on rail plans.
"The governors-elect in those states decided for whatever reasons that they weren't going to be able to use the money," LaHood said, referring to Republicans Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio. Walker had wanted to shift Wisconsin's $810 million to roads and bridges; Kasich said after his election, "That train is dead."
An editorial in Tuesday's Washington Post
saw the elections of the two governors, who won "on explicitly anti-rail platforms," as a rejection of the administration's policy.
A news analysis in The New York Times
"How much pizzazz will be needed to sell a rail-averse nation, and some of its increasingly rail-averse elected officials, on a future with bullet trains that can rocket at speeds of more than 150 miles an hour...? Or will building more lines with decent, dependable service, which many transportation advocates say will provide more bang for the buck, be sufficient to get people in the habit of riding the rails again?"
It is LaHood's belief -- and the vision, he said, of President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden -- that Americans will benefit from a strengthened railroad network. Over the next 25 years, LaHood sees a rail system connecting 85 percent of Americans. "Europe and Asia have it all over us," he said, but we're "in the ballpark now" because of the $8 billion in stimulus money awarded earlier this year for projects across the country. A month ago, the president proposed
a multibillion dollar program to invest in the nation's infrastructure and create jobs.
In January, North Carolina and Virginia received $620 million in stimulus money
to upgrade rail service from Charlotte to Washington, D.C., with trains that would reach top speeds of 110 mph.
LaHood looked to businesses and corporations to be willing to make investments. "Any kind of public-private partnership is good because there's not enough federal or state money in these hard times to do all the things we want to do."
LaHood came to Charlotte, he said, at the urging of Mayor Anthony Foxx, who visited the DOT secretary twice; he's a "very persuasive fellow," LaHood said, "He's serious about transportation and I don't say that about every mayor." The cities and the states, "that's where the creative thinking is going on," LaHood said.
The regions' leaders have "got their act together," he said. "They have common priorities for transportation" that take into account the entire region, not just a particular geographic area.
Foxx said Wednesday's gathering was a start. "There's energy across the region." He said officials should "take that energy and build a regional transportation authority that would take the decisions that are made about land use and transportation at the local level and build a regional vision" -- a strategy that would "help us prioritize our requests." Foxx said Denver and Chicago – areas LaHood pointed to as transportation leaders – are "at a competitive advantage because they have a regional vision."
"We have to find a way to have local decision-making so people don't feel they're being swept up into an urbanized community," said Foxx. "You've got small towns around the Charlotte area that simply don't want that kind of intense development and they shouldn't have to have it."