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U.S. Transportation Secretary continues push for high-speed rail

U.S. Dept. TransportatiSecretary Ray LaHood speaks UIC Forum Chicago Ill. Thursday December 6 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

U.S. Dept. of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood speaks at the UIC Forum in Chicago, Ill., on Thursday, December 6, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 8, 2013 6:33AM

Hours after defending high-speed rail at a Capitol Hill hearing, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told a Chicago crowd that 80 percent of America will be connected by high-speed rail within 25 years “because this is what the American people want.”

Speaking at the University of Ilinois at Chicago’s Urban Forum, LaHood talked about his long-term support for the $500 billion project, saying it will boost the economy and ensure good passenger rail service that will be affordable, on time and comfortable.

In terms of transportation, LaHood said, “President [Barack] Obama’s legacy will be high-speed rail,” while his own legacy would be about safety, particularly curbing distracted driving.

“When I took the job, no one could even define what distracted driving is,” LaHood said. “Today, everybody knows what it is.”

Thirty-nine states now have laws against distracted driving.

High-speed rail is this generation’s big dream for the next generation, he said, just as the creation of the interstate system was in 1967.

“Nobody knew where the lines were going to be, and nobody knew where all the money was going to come from,” LaHood said. “Fifty years later, we have the best interstate system in the world.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation already has invested $12 billion in high-speed rail. The belief is that population growth will make additional transportation options, such as high-speed rail, more important because ridership has increased in key transportation corridors by more than 70 percent since 2000.

Last month, Amtrak began 110 mph rail service on a 15-mile segment along the Chicago-St. Louis corridor. Projections show high-speed service on nearly 75 percent of the corridor by 2015, reducing the trip by more than an hour.

Chicago is the transportation center of the nation, but high-speed rail would be an even bigger economic boon, said Steve Schlickman, executive director of UIC’s Urban Transportation Center.

If a nine-state plan that positions Chicago as the crossroads of a Midwest high-speed rail system comes to fruition, Schlickman said, downtown Chicago would see roughly the same amount of travelers that go through Midway Airport in a day arriving by high-speed rail downtown.

“It will be an enormous boost to jobs downtown,” Schlickman said. And, with far fewer weather and security hassles, “It should be as fast as flying.”

Earlier in the day, LaHood, a former prominent Republican U.S. representative from Peoria, defended federal funding for California’s high-speed rail project in the face of tough questions from two Republican members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“We will not be dissuaded by our detractors. I will push back and push back on behalf for the American people,” LaHood said later in Chicago. “This is what America wants and this is what will happen.”

LaHood was coy about whether he’ll spend another four years as transportation secretary, saying he has had one meeting with Obama and will continue the conversation in January.

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