November 27, 2014

DOT secretary: ‘HSR America’s jobs engine’

Comparing embryo high-speed rail projects with the birth of the Interstate Highway system more than half-a-century ago, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said last week that the competition America is facing is not between Democrats and Republicans, but “between the United States and countries around the world that have laid tracks for economic growth.”

LaHood was joined at the podium by Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo at a National Mediation Board sponsored conference on passenger railroad labor-management relations. Other co-sponsors of the Philadelphia conference were the Labor Relations Association of Passenger Railroads and rail labor organizations.

In introducing LaHood, National Mediation Board Chairman Harry Hoglander called him “the Obama administration’s champion for high-speed rail, recognizing that our transportation infrastructure is more than roads, runaway, tracks and shipping lanes — it is the lifeline of our economy and the way we lead our lives and pursue our dreams.”

LaHood said the core of the Obama administration’s multi-billion-dollar initiative on high-speed rail systems is the “building of bridges between Americans who need jobs and jobs that need doing — jobs like building a 21st century rail system.”

More than $10.5 billion in federal funds — mostly funded through a congressionally approved economic stimulus package — has been committed by the Obama administration to more than 20 HSR projects nationwide.

“As a consequence,” said LaHood, “we have made a down payment on a national rail system that within 25 years will give the vast majority of Americans the option of traveling from city to city by high-speed intercity passenger rail. Twenty-five years from now, 80 percent of America will be connected with high-speed intercity passenger rail — that’s a lot of jobs and a lot of train sets.”

LaHood said that in conversations with experienced European and Asian rail-equipment manufacturers, who have built high-speed rail systems in other nations, he urged them to “find shuttered plants [in America] and hire American workers and build the train sets in America. We have good workers, and if they need to be retrained, we will provide the money to do that.

“We are at the point in America where we were with the Interstate Highway system [in 1950s],” LaHood said. When President Eisenhower signed legislation to begin the Interstate Highway system, “not all the lines were on the map and we didn’t know where all the money was coming from. Fifty years later, we had a state of the art highway system — and 25 years from now, we will have a state of the art high-speed rail system, second to none in the world.”

Szabo promised that for all high-speed rail projects partially funded with federal dollars, “rigid buy America provisions will apply.” In addition, he said, high-speed rail operators “will be deemed rail carriers under federal law,” placing employees under Railroad Retirement, the Railway Labor Act and the Federal Employers’ Liability Act.