Study shows how high-speed rail would boost Wisconsin’s economy

There is a reason why our economic competitors around the world are investing in passenger rail – because competing in a modern economy requires efficient, convenient, multi-modal transportation options that allow workers to get around and be productive.

Modernized transportation infrastructure has always been vital to economic growth. In the 1840’s we invested in early railroads to move agricultural products to larger markets. In the 20th century, Wisconsin built highways, linking cities with each other and to rural areas, helping to support our state’s transition into an industrial powerhouse.

Today, we face new challenges that high-speed rail can help us to meet. 

Alongside dairy products, agricultural commodities, manufactured goods, and other traditional mainstays of the state’s economy, high-tech industries have emerged such as health care, biotechnology, advanced manufacturing, and information technology. Where we once faced the challenge of delivering Wisconsin’s bounty to the rest of the nation, today we face the challenges of fostering attractive communities to retain our highly educated labor force and efficiently connecting to regional networks.

But, congested airports and crammed highways hinder travel around the region, creating barriers between our companies and their business partners. Midwestern cities and states already lose billions of dollars of economic output every year to traffic congestion. And, as the main source of our dependence on oil, our transportation system leaves us vulnerable to oil price spikes and pollution. 

Eight decades ago, in the midst of the Great Depression, America set out to build the key infrastructure that would position the nation for global leadership in the 20th century. The initial justification for many of these projects was to create jobs, but their benefits have been lasting. Who among the workers who blazed trails for the Civilian Conservation Corps, poured concrete at the Hoover Dam, or laid down steel beams on the Golden Gate Bridge could have envisioned that their great grandchildren would one day enjoy the fruits of their labor?

Today, in the midst of what some call the “Great Recession,” America is considering a similar series of critical investments in our nation’s infrastructure. After many years of allowing our passenger rail network to succumb to neglect and disrepair, the United States appears finally ready to build a passenger rail network worthy of the 21st century.

A new WISPIRG study shows that high-speed rail can boost our economy, save energy, curb pollution and provide a popular alternative to congested roads and airports. Drawing lessons from other countries that have already invested in high-speed rail, the new report details a number of examples from around the world that make a variety of cases for high-speed rail.

High-speed rail lines worldwide have proven to be critical parts of their nations’ transportation systems — offering alternatives to congested airports and roads and boosting the economy. In Europe, Japan and elsewhere, high-speed rail lines have created new links among cities and between people, links that are critical to the success of a 21st century “knowledge economy.” At the same time, high-speed rail lines are saving energy, protecting the environment, creating jobs, sparking economic growth, and delivering safe and reliable service.

Bottomline, high-speed rail will make Wisconsin more competitive in a modern economy, enhancing our productivity and economic output. 

Simply maintaining the status quo is not enough to meet our transportation and economic challenges. Now that the election is behind us, it’s time to get serious about high-speed rail. Our leaders from both parties should support long-term investment in high-speed rail and make sure that we are acting now both to create jobs and to position Wisconsin for global leadership in the 21st century.

Bruce Speight is the director of the WISPIRG Foundation, an independent voice that works on behalf of the public interest.

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