2010-02-26 / Columnists

Smith Speaks From Albany

From FR to DC In A New York Minute
Commentary From The Desk Of Senator Malcolm Smith President Pro Tem New York State Senate

Imagine holding a business meeting in Washington D.C., and making it to Beach 9th to take in some sunrays at one of the nation’s most beautiful beaches by early afternoon. Or being in Buffalo in the afternoon and meeting friends for dinner at The Irish Circle or The Wharf on Beach 116 Street without flying.

High Speed Passenger Rail transportation, allowing New Yorkers to travel comfortably from Far Rockaway to Albany, Washington D.C., or just about anywhere in the Northeast in record travel times, has been thrust into the national spotlight again.

President Barack Obama has recently committed $8 billion in federal stimulus grants to be used for highspeed rail projects in 31 states. An investment in high-speed rail he has termed essential to the development of a new foundation for our economic competitiveness and resurgence.

The grants mean jobs and economic progress for the Empire State. New York State, the nation’s most developed, profitable and utilized passenger rail network will initially receive about $151 million of the state’s total request of $5.2 billion.

The majority of funding for dedicated high-speed rail corridors went to Florida ($ 1.25 billion), California ($ 2.3 billion) and Illinois ($ 1.2 billion).

The Obama Administration highspeed rail commitment was slated for shovel ready-style Track One projects.

At the moment – the most ambitious portion of New York’s request to build a $4.7 billion high-speed passenger rail line from Albany to Buffalo remains unfunded.

The question for the Empire State now is whether the bold new future of high-speed rail will be available to us, or ceded to Florida, Illinois and California. This latter possibility is untenable, as our economic and environmental future hangs in the balance. Numerous studies depict the inability of airports and roads to accommodate our escalating population growth. High-speed passenger rail can no longer be viewed as another nostalgic revival of our storied rail past or a wistful attempt to emulate Europe and Asia’s high-speed rail triumphs, but must be seen as a potential centerpiece of an American infrastructural revival.

Beyond efficiently connecting New Yorkers and their neighbors, highspeed rail can provide a direct stimulus to economic life in Upstate New York’s cities like Niagara Falls, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica and Albany and Plattsburgh by connecting them to places like –Far Rockaway in a New York minute.

This nation is no stranger to bold effort, even in times of national stress. President Obama recently reminded us of Lincoln’s decision to build a transcontinental railroad during the Civil War.

Decades earlier, New York built the Erie Canal for the then-staggering sum of $15 million, along the same east to west corridor as the proposed highspeed rail line. The Erie Canal set the stage for explosive commercial growth.

In this year’s budget, Congress has allotted an additional $2.5 billion. New York needs to mobilize for our fair share. Accordingly, I call upon my partners in government, the Governor and Assembly, to join me in taking the following three steps to ensure a passenger rail resurgence: First: Establish a High Speed Rail Authority to operate the system and raise money to ensure its success: specifically, to provide matching funds for federal grants, continue the environmental and engineering work to prepare for the new high-speed rail corridor and then, to build the line. Second: Convene a statewide High Speed Rail Public Private Partnership (“P3”) Council to achieve public-private collaboration in funding high-speed rail.

Led by Comptroller Carl McCall, the State Asset Maximization Commission has outlined the key principles of public private partnerships in modern economies. Now we need to apply those principles specifically to developing high-speed rail. Third: Establish a bipartisan High Speed Rail Business Council to promote awareness. More than two centuries ago, Assemblyman Joshua Forman’s resolution sounded the call for legislative action to initiate development of the Erie Canal. The time for New York’s next Erie Canal is now. High-speed rail is, simply, our next step forward.

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