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Railwatch 084 - June 2000

The case for Interstate II

By Gil Carmichael

Chairman of the Amtrak Reform Council, speaking to "The Road Gang", Washington's Highway Transportation Fraternity

As late as 1987 I was active in promoting a $1.6 billion, 1,077-mile, four-lane highway development programme for my home state of Mississippi.

During my business career I have owned five automobile dealerships and an air charter service. My first involvement at the federal level was in highway safety.

President Nixon named me to the National Highway Safety Advisory Committee. In 1975 President Ford appointed me to the National Transportation Policy Study Commission. I went into this process a strong believer in highway transportation.

After three years, I was transformed into a believer in intermodal transportation. Those sentiments were confirmed by my later work as Federal Railroad Administrator under President Bush - which also brought me into contact with leaders in aviation and transit. My comments today reflect nearly 30 years of hands-on experience.

The USA built 46,000 miles of interstate highway which dramatically increased mobility, economic growth and transportation efficiency.

Nobody envisaged the drawbacks of fragmentation of city and suburban areas, devastation of some city centres, effects of pollution, increasing congestion no matter how big the roads became, and the deaths of 40,000 people a year.

We would not tolerate this situation in air or rail service.

It has become clear that we cannot solve our transportation needs of the 21st century just by adding ever-more-costly highway lanes. This approach simply is not sustainable.

Today, a doublestack freight train leaving a coastal port can replace 280 trucks, run at speeds up to 90mph on the western railroads, and afford as much as nine times the fuel efficiency of container transport by highway.

Overall, the operational and economic efficiency of freight's intermodal network conserves fuel, reduces other environmental impacts, and is significantly safer. lt represents the most economically and environmentally "sustainable" approach to transportation services.

It seems to me that our success in freight intermodal points the way to the most promising strategy for transportation improvements in the years ahead. I call it "Interstate II". It is a new vision of truly high-speed intercity travel that is based upon steel, not pavement.

Interstate II already is under way. The New York-Washington Northeast Corridor has been in place since the 1970s. High-speed trains will serve Boston later this year. Turbotrains now operate on the Empire Corridor in New York State. Washington, Oregon and British Columbia are developing a high-speed route in the Pacific Northwest.

Eight years ago Congress authorized five new high-speed rail corridors. Today, with the TEA-21 Act, 13 have been approved for development.

When Congress voted $2.3 billion in capital funds for Amtrak, it sent a message that intercity rail passenger service is here to stay. During the first quarter of the 21st century, I believe that we can build about 20,000 miles of corridors capable of running trains at 90 to 150 miles per hour.

As much as another 10,000 miles of high-quality conventional rail routings will augment that network.

Another important element of Interstate II will be the city centre terminal. This serves the intermodal passenger network. It also serves cities both large and small and helps to revitalise the downtown areas.

For the equivalent of two cents on the motor fuel tax, one penny at the federal level and a second penny from the states - America could have, within 20 years, a network of high-speed rail corridors that approaches the scale of the interstate highway system. That commitment of fuel tax dollars would offer a powerful incentive to additional private investment as well.

Building this very safe, 20,000-mile, grade-separated, high-speed intercity rail network is the key to the quality of transportation services during the new century.

The money is there to do the job. The "road gang's" next goal should be to build it.

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