Experts, Policy Makers Debate High-Speed Rail at 2011 Lipinski Symposium

Panelists at the fifth annual Lipinski Symposium.

Four decades ago, Jim Oberstar took a train from Paris to Brussels – then, a six-hour endeavor. Today that same trip takes 90 minutes, thanks to Europe’s investment in high-speed rail.

“People make that commute,” the former Minnesota congressman and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said Monday at a high-speed rail symposium at Northwestern University. “You work in one city, you’re home for dinner in the other.”

Over the same four decades, Oberstar noted, the United States has gone in the opposite direction: Gone are the days when we boasted the world’s fastest scheduled steam locomotive (the Hiawatha, 1935), or when people could travel from New York City to Chicago almost exclusively by trolley.

Oberstar argued it’s time to bring that era back. The high-speed rail advocate was one of more than a dozen politicians, policy makers, and experts to speak at the fifth annual William O. Lipinski Symposium on Transportation Policy, titled “High Speed Rail: Perspectives and Prospects.” The event – named for former Rep. William O. Lipinski of Chicago, who hosted the conference – was held at the James L. Allen Center, 2169 Campus Drive, in Evanston.

The symposium was sponsored by the Infrastructure Technology Institute, a federally funded transportation research center at Northwestern. The Institute develops advanced methods for monitoring infrastructure condition and performance to assist owners and operators with critical decisions concerning structural integrity, renewal, and rehabilitation.

In the symposium’s opening remarks, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood acknowledged that the United States is still in the planning phase of high-speed rail, unsure of where the tracks will go or how they will connect. That uncertainty is reminiscent of another enormous project that inevitably rewrote our nation’s history: President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1956 creation of a nationwide interstate system.

“There’s no stopping this. High-speed rail is coming to America,” LaHood said. “Twenty-five years from now, we’ll all be very proud.”

Half the speakers in the morning’s six-member panel echoed LaHood’s sentiments, arguing high-speed rail projects would create jobs, reduce carbon emissions, and alleviate congestion in a nation whose population is poised to grow dramatically in coming years. Others spoke against the projects, arguing they are costly, inefficient, unnecessary, and not as environmentally friendly as they are represented to be.

“The environmental benefits of high-speed rail are marginal at best,” said Robert Poole, director of transportation policy for the Reason Foundation, adding that 35 of the federal government’s 44 proposed rail projects are diesel-dependent.

A session on ridership forecasting examined a rational approach to market estimation and reviewed uncertainties and contingent factors affecting future rail ridership. Speakers in a session on cost, finance, and economic development potential discussed the uncertain economic benefits of high-speed rail and the challenges associated with securing large-scale funding from both public and private sectors.

The David F. Schulz Award was awarded to U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), a supporter of high-speed rail projects in Illinois. The award is named for the late Dave Schulz, the founding director of the Infrastructure Technology Institute.

Other speakers at the symposium included:
-    U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan (R-Tenn.)
-    Raymond H. Ellis, managing director, AECOM, Inc.
-    Frank Koppelman, professor emeritus, Northwestern University, and chair, Ridership and Revenue Peer Review Panel, California High Speed Rail Authority
-    Thomas E. Lanctot, principal and group head, Infrastructure Investment Banking, William Blair & Company
-    Howard Learner, president and executive director, Environmental Law and Policy Center
-    Steven Polzin, director of mobility policy research, Center for Urban Transportation Research, University of South Florida
-    Kimon Proussaloglou, principal, Cambridge Systematics
-    Morton Schapiro, president, Northwestern University
-    Joseph L. Schofer, director, Infrastructure Technology Institute, and professor and associate dean, McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science
-    Samuel K. Skinner, of counsel, Greenberg Traurig, LLP
-    U.S. Rep. William Shuster (R-Penn.)
-    Joseph C. Szabo, administrator, Federal Railroad Administration
-    William Testa, vice president, director of regional research, Economic Research Department, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago

Read Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's blog about high-speed rail and the Lipinski Symposium.