It started with a $24.8 billion price tag and was supposed to be completed in 13 years. It was heralded as a sweeping investment that would connect our country from coast to coast, improve national security, and create opportunities for economic development. In reality it took 35 years to finish, cost more than $129 billion, and was over 46,000 miles long.
“It” was the national highway system, which received initial funding from President Truman before President Eisenhower completed the tab in 1956.
The point of that little story is to put the current discussions around high-speed rail into context. America can ill afford not to invest in increased accessibility and opportunity. According to a new report from Illinois PIRG, Connecting the Midwest, a Midwest high-speed rail network stands to net the eight partner states 57,000 permanent jobs and put 58 percent of the population within 15 miles of a station. (Watch video from the Connecting the Midwest news conference, at which I spoke.) Ground has broken on the $2.7 billion already invested in the Midwest network from the $8 billion national total President Obama authorized just nine months ago. For a federal project of this scale, work is moving forward at lightning speeds.
Congress and the American public must have patience and a long-term view of investment in high- speed rail. The full benefits won’t be realized overnight, but every dollar invested brings us closer. For instance, MPC analyzed the economic impact of increased tourism in the Chicago area that will result from the initial $1.3 billion track improvements from St. Louis to Chicago. We found that the project pays for itself in just 10 years from increased tourism alone! This does not count additional business generated from demand for easily accessible legal, advertising, consulting work or headquarters for those that choose to locate near the center of the Midwest network. Bottom line, investment in high speed rail is good for Chicagoland.
It’s easy to get caught up in the political crisis du jour and difficult to keep focused on the long-term benefits, no matter what the issue or investment. But, just as the national highway system took decades to complete, so too will a high speed rail network. In the end, it will be worth the investment.