WASHINGTON - Like most Americans, I'm a firm believer in the notion that if our country sets its mind to do something, we'll get it done.
That's why I was so pleased by the U.S. Department of Transportation's announcement in late October that Michigan will receive more than $160 million in funding to improve our railway system; improvements that are desperately needed if we're to catch up to the rest of the world in this key mode of transportation.
The money will go to three projects: improving track from Kalamazoo to Dearborn to accommodate high-speed passenger trains; developing plans to triple the number of daily rail trips between Detroit and Chicago and increasing their speed; and improving rail lines on Detroit's west side to reduce congestion and facilitate both high-speed service between cities and for commuter rail service.
Sen. Carl Levin
Why is this money so important? Because it puts Michigan, and the entire Midwest, on the path toward the kind of fast, efficient, dependable passenger rail service that other countries have long enjoyed.
Funding will improve more than 130 miles of track between Kalamazoo and Dearborn so that it can accommodate passenger trains moving at up to 110 mph. It also will pay for studies on how best to improve other sections of track in the state for similar high-speed service.
Our economic competitors - nations such as Germany and Japan - have long enjoyed the benefits of high-speed rail service between their cities. They have demonstrated that such service can create jobs and promote economic growth, and that they can provide a more energy-efficient alternative to other forms of transportation. High-speed rail transport has also lowered these nations' dependence on imported oil.
The United States lags all these other countries in providing high-speed rail service, but there is no reason for this to be so. As President Obama said last year in announcing his high-speed rail initiative, "There's no reason why the future of travel should lie somewhere else beyond our borders."
Michigan and other Midwestern states have put together a comprehensive plan to provide high-speed rail service throughout the region. Detroit, Jackson, Kalamazoo and other Michigan cities would enjoy high-speed rail links to Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Milwaukee and other Midwestern cities. Such a system would create jobs both as we build it, with American workers building the trains and rails, and when it is completed, by promoting tourism and commerce and making travel between cities more affordable and convenient.
And it would reduce our dependence on foreign oil because rail service can move passengers more efficiently than other modes of transportation.
This funding also brings us closer to something Michigan has never had: efficient, convenient commuter rail service in our state's most populous area. Many major U.S. metropolitan areas now have or are building at least some light-rail service for commuters, and not just East Coast cities with subways, but smaller areas such as Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Portland, Ore. There is a wealth of evidence that commuter rail systems reduce road congestion and boost local economies. Michigan is overdue to see those benefits.
The United States should not continue to lag behind our competitors in rail transportation. Michigan can, and should, help pave the way for high-speed rail service.
And it should enjoy the same benefits that other states reap from their commuter rail service. The funding the state received in October puts us on that path.
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Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan.