Local governments should plan now for high-speed rail
In January, the federal government allocated $8 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to states across the country to develop high-speed passenger rail. While it likely will be decades before a nationwide network becomes a reality, experts say local governments can take steps now to benefit in the future.
Aside from shortening commutes, attracting employers and tourism, and decreasing gasoline dependence, high-speed rail has the potential to create jobs, such as in rail line and train construction, says John Robert Smith, president and CEO of Washington-based Reconnecting America. “[In addition,] it gives economic developers one more chip to work with,” Smith says. High-speed rail, for instance, can create a larger market for retail, sporting venues and cultural facilities by making the cities and specific destinations more accessible.
Local governments, however, need to be proactive, Smith says. One key to making high-speed rail successful is connecting it to local public transportation options. “Local government is going to have to be able to complete the last mile of connectivity,” Smith says. “[Officials must answer the question] ‘How does that high-speed connect to the rest of your community to make it a seamless transportation experience for both visitors and people who use it to get to jobs and healthcare?'” Determining what infrastructure and services are needed around the stops, such as child care services or affordable housing, will require local governments to address issues of land use, planning and architectural development, and those discussions can start now, he says.
But, planning does not stop at the city limits, says Patrick Phillips, CEO of the Washington-based Urban Land Institute. “High-speed rail is extra-territorial, and local leaders have to think beyond their boundaries,” Phillips says. That means working with other cities and the state to plan routes and secure funding from a variety of sources, including local, state and federal governments, as well as the private sector.
Smith also encourages local leaders to make their voices heard at the federal level. He recently testified before a Senate committee about the transportation needs — including a connection to high-speed rail — of small towns and cities that should be addressed in the federal transportation bill, which is up for reauthorization. “No one knows the needs better than mayors and elected officials,” he says.
— Jennifer Grzeskowiak is a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based freelance writer.