#CNU17 In Search of a Vision for High-Speed Rail

Here's a change New Urbanists can believe in: The new stimulus program gives 40 percent of the transportation money to rail, and only 60 percent to highways. This is a real shift from the traditional split, which is only 15 percent for rail and 85 percent for highways.

It's more than just the money, though. Part of what the panelists at the Thursday afternoon session on high-speed rail were excited about was the way President Obama is talking about rail – not just high-speed trains, but rail within a larger context of transportation. High-speed rail is glamorous. That's why it's useful as a hook. It's getting people – some people, at least – thinking big about transportation. They haven't done that for a generation or more.

There's a real battle about defining the vision, though. Some historic old stations can be adapted to high-speed rail. In other cases, new stations will be needed. New Urbanists need to insist that each of these new stations be the anchor of a 100- to 300-acre walkable urban district. It's not just design, either, the panel emphasized. These districts need good management, and they need a business improvement district, too.

A sharp comment from Chris Leinberger: Don't believe the padded schedules that engineers typically suggest for rail construction projects: 10 years to launch a new system. Leinberger noted that when New Mexico's Gov. Bill Richardson wanted to connect Santa Fe and Albuquerque, he got the first phase up and running with 18 months and the second two years after that.

Will the Transportation Security Administration allow authentic urbanism around the nation's major railway stations? TSA has reportedly refused to allow an urban farmers' market at Union Station in Washington. "Urbanism and terrorism are enemies. We have to live with it. We may have to accept a higher degree of risk," said Leinberger.

Panelists commented that there isn't much rhyme or reason in the way that airline security measures are so much tighter than those for trains, even though a bomb on a train can wreak havoc just as on a plane.

On the transportation issue generally: "There are a number of solutions, but they all start with vision."

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