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Yesterday, about 1,000 high-speed rail experts, leaders and stakeholders from 37 countries descended on the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia for the 8th World Congress on High Speed Rail. Hosted by the International Union of Railways (UIC) and American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the event — which runs through tomorrow — features conference sessions, technical tours and exhibits. Following the event’s opening session, APTA and UIC officials held a press conference to discuss — and answer questions about — high-speed rail development, particularly as it relates to the United States. During his opening remarks, APTA President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Melaniphy touted the results of an APTA study released yesterday that showed nearly two-thirds of Americans say they are interested in riding high-speed trains. The figure jumps to almost three-quarters in the 18-to-24 age bracket, Melaniphy said. The majority of the questions asked during the press conference were directed at U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Following are paraphrased versions of several questions posed to LaHood and his lightly edited responses. Q: European and Asian colleagues at the World Congress have said the keys to high-speed rail success are political will and a financial plan. Where is the political will in the United States, and what is the financial plan? LaHood: The political will lies in California. We’re hoping our friends in Congress will take their cues from the very strong leadership we’ve seen come from California. The Assembly and Senate showed very strong political courage in voting to sell $6 billion worth of bonds to match more than $3 billion in federal dollars. We have a lot of friends of high-speed rail in Congress. Q: How do you make the case for states to invest in high-speed rail, particularly given their difficult financial situations? LaHood: I spent 14 years in Congress, and five of those years we balanced the budget. The way we did that was we set aside money for debt reduction and that’s what states are doing. We have a $3 trillion budget in Washington. The idea that you take all that money and set it aside for debt — nobody does that in their own personal budget. You set aside some money for but you still have priorities. We have to have transportation priorities, and one of them should be high-speed rail. Q: What do high-speed rail advocates need to do to make sure projects move forward? LaHood: Put people in office who support their ideas. Elections make a difference. The reason California got the most money is because they’ve worked for two decades on this. People have been working there for 20 years and that’s the reason they’re so far along. Q: Politicians are winning elections in battleground states by promising to kill high-speed rail. In light of what happened in England, where the success of the HS2 project passing was due to public outreach, has any thought been given to doing a similar outreach to the American public? LaHood: I’m out of the politics business. I’ll just tell you this: Ordinary citizens are enlightened about this issue. Every place where we’ve made investments, people have been behind the elected officials. It’s amazing the kind of groundswell there is among common, ordinary citizens for different forms of transportation. This is what the people want. We’re going to keep the train moving here, because we’re headed in the right direction. The politics almost always takes care of itself — the people almost always get it right. Q: Governors around the country turned back money for high-speed rail projects. This conference likely was planned to be held in the U.S. before that happened — are you disappointed you don’t have more projects to show? LaHood: Only three governors turned down the money. When Florida turned down the money, we had $10 billion worth of requests. That was a signal that there was pent-up demand in America for different forms of transportation. We’re thrilled with the opportunities we’ve had around the country.
— Angela Cotey