Why would the Philadelphia area, perfectly positioned at the center of the busiest rail line in America, only receive 0.34% of funding that is critical to job creation?
When Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood was asked a similar question by a Georgia resident recently his response was blunt: “Get your act together. Unless a state has its act together with money and a plan that connects things, you’re not going to get money.”
If our region in the southeastern part of Pennsylvania is going to have its “act together”, we must prepare a coordinated regional development strategy to compete for investment dollars with other areas of the country. In order to take full advantage of the jobs and economic growth that will come with high-speed rail we must demonstrate that we are serious by backing up our request for money with state funding and a concrete plan that “connects things”, as Secretary LaHood said. Those “things” that need to be connected in Southeast Pennsylvania are airports, highways, rail, etc.
In Florida, the state legislature held a special session in December to pass a comprehensive plan that outlined the governance and funding of their high-speed rail project. California embraced high-speed rail by putting a referendum in support of high-speed rail on the ballot and committing to committing to their own stake in the financing of a new line. Both states also have a comprehensive vision for investment and planning which incorporates all forms of transportation—a so-called “intermodal” approach. Currently our region is not organized to take an intermodal approach.
In New York, the Port Authority controls tunnels, bridges, airports, and seaports. In the Philadelphia region, unfortunately, we have no intermodal entity. Instead, we have a port authority for ports, a separate transit authority for mass transit, a bridge authority for bridges, an airport authority for each region's airports, a turnpike authority and so on. Each entity has its own layers of patronage and political appointees. Each entity has its own budget and ability to invest and incur debt. No single entity can develop and execute a comprehensive plan to transform our region’s transportation infrastructure. As a result, we lack a comprehensive plan.
I have proposed legislation in Harrisburg to create a Regional Airport Authority to streamline travel patterns in Southeastern Pennsylvania by coordinating air traffic between underused regional airports and the overused Philadelphia Airport and encouraging the use of high-speed rail. Fifty percent of the over 500,000 flights annually at Philadelphia International Airport are to destinations within 500 miles. These destinations include Pittsburgh, Washington D.C., New York, Boston, and as far south as Richmond. All of these destinations could be better served by high-speed rail. True high-speed rail could travel between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in an hour and a half, faster than an airplane if you add check-in and security.
While I stand by the need for an airport authority, the success in Florida and California should make it clear to us as a region that we need more than a regional airport authority. We will not see real progress in transforming our systems without an intermodal regional transportation authority. Florida and California succeeded in part because they committed state money to sustaining and operating high-speed rail. An authority that combined existing entities would have the ability to raise substantial funds for the same purpose.
We cannot have a first-rate economy without a first-rate transportation system and for the future that must include high-speed rail. In China, where much of the country still lives in rural undeveloped conditions (in many cases lacking indoor plumbing), they nonetheless have trains that travel in excess of 300 mph between their major cities. America should strive to have the best transportation system in the world, bar none, in order to have the best economy in the world, bar none.
Pennsylvania missed out in this latest round of funding for high-speed rail development, but this won’t be our last opportunity. President Obama has affirmed his commitment to investing federal money in nationwide infrastructure development and singled out high-speed rail as a focus of the administration. Our state and region should act now to ensure that we have “our act together” for future rounds. One major step for future success would be the creation of an intermodal authority for the southeast region and the development of a comprehensive regional transportation plan.
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