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05.26.2011
Editorial> High Speed Transactions
Alan G. Brake weighs in on the current state of high speed rail.
A train waits in Santiago Calatrava's Liige-Guillemins train station in Belgium.
Bas Lammers/Flickr

In spite of what some readers might believe, The Architect’s Newspaper is not a partisan organ. What we are, however, are unapologetic urbanists. We believe in the economic and cultural power—and necessity—of cities. And so, it is with mixed feelings that we weigh in on the highs and lows of recent developments in the nation’s proposed High Speed Rail (HSR) network. The governors of Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin have all abandoned plans—and federal funding pledges—for portions of that network, casting aside years of work, millions of dollars in studies, and, often, strong local support, in the name of fiscal conservatism.

Even a moment’s investigation shows that such claims by these Republican—and Tea Party-backed—governors lack seriousness. All three sought to divert their funding to road and bridge projects rather than return it outright to the feds making their protestations on behalf of budgetary discipline ring hollow. Further, their actions betray a fundamental anti-urban bias that ignores climate change, runaway energy costs, and the demands of economic strength and diversity.

Thankfully, the Federal Department of Transportation rejected all schemes to redirect funds to roads and recommitted them to HSR projects elsewhere, so the story is not so universally bleak. Illinois is reaping the benefits of the Wisconsin and Florida’s governors’ short sightedness. Late last year, after Wisconsin rejected their federal funding, Illinois picked up a significant portion, $42 million, to boost their own investments in High Speed Rail. In early May, it was announced that the state would pick up an additional $186 million, from the pool of money that Florida’s governor rebuffed, to continue improvements to the planned Chicago-to-St. Louis HSR line (The importance of this line as a transportation alternative was underscored by the recent tornado that devastated the St. Louis airport).

It is especially heartening because the funding boosts were the result of a bi-partisan coalition of officials at the federal and state levels, including Illinois Governor Pat Quinn (D), Senator’s Mark Kirk (R) and Dick Durbin (D), and federal Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, a Republican who crossed the aisle to work for the Democratic administration.

Planning for and building infrastructure takes long-term vision and a commitment to a politics of consensus rather than narrow self-interest. Illinois is lucky to have elected officials who, in some areas at least, are putting the state’s interests before their own. It’s a quality that has become far too scarce in contemporary politics. While it’s a shame that the gains in Illinois had to come at the expense of others in the region, let’s hope that once the trains are running it sets off a new Big Ten rivalry. We’re on board.

Alan G. Brake