Moving Forward: Faster Trains Propel the Economy, and our Middle Class, Forward

Note: This is the second piece in a series that explores the connection between a robust transportation system and a stronger middle class. Read the first piece which sets the tone for a much needed national conversation.

Around the globe, the race is on to bring the world's fastest trains -- which top speeds nearing 400 miles per hour -- to commuters, travelers and business professionals alike. China is devoting billions with hopes for leading the world in rail innovation. Japan is continually making improvements to its 50-year-old system. Countries throughout Europe are expanding upon thousands of miles of high-speed rail track, which run from the south of Spain to Berlin, Oslo and Edinburgh. Meanwhile, the U.S., once known for its transportation innovations, is struggling to catch up.

Instead of embracing the future of modern transportation, some elected officials in the U.S. fail to see the value of passenger rail as part of an integrated network. Many of those same officials are also more than willing to starve the rest of our badly aging transportation system. Our national passenger rail system is continually threatened with bankruptcy budgets by politicians who ignore their constituents and oppose federal support for Amtrak. Partisan bickering has sabotaged decades-long efforts to replace rail tunnels in the Northeast that were built 100 years ago and are in a shocking state of disrepair. And Acela, this country's fastest passenger rail service, is only available to riders on the East Coast and the speed it reaches -- 150 miles per hour -- pales in comparison to train service found abroad.

While the rest of the world moves forward with innovative transportation solutions that have the ability to easily connect people with major economic hubs, the U.S. is still relying on decades-old transportation systems -- and it's middle-class Americans who are paying the price. By not investing in faster trains, we're missing out on a critical opportunity to transform communities, create high-skill jobs and improve the quality of life for millions. An economic impact study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors shows that in communities large and small, high-speed rail would increase economic development by improving market access, offering greater geographic connectivity, easing congestion and increasing tourism and business development.

California Governor Jerry Brown understands this well. Despite facing stiff political head winds from a well-organized chorus of nay-sayers, Brown has a transformative project barreling down the tracks that will open America's most modern high-speed rail service by 2022. The initial phase of the new network will connect San Francisco to Los Angeles at speeds of 220 miles per hour, turning a six-hour trip by car into a breezy two-and-a-half hours by train.

This isn't government excess. The private sector will boom as this forward-thinking initiative advances. Construction alone is estimated to create 20,000 new jobs annually for the next five years, and increased economic activity associated with the project could generate an additional 400,000 permanent jobs. By 2035, high-speed rail in California will lead to an estimated $7.6 billion in new business sales and $3 billion in new wages. The system will also ease severe highway congestion, reduce carbon emissions and preserve agricultural and protected lands.

It isn't just California that could benefit from this kind of system. A Midwest high-speed rail system with Chicago as a hub is estimated to create 104,000 new jobs and an additional $5.5 billion in wages in the Windy City alone. Factor in connectivity to other cities -- including Cleveland/Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul and St. Louis -- and you're looking at an even bigger economic boon for the region. And that's not all. Research has shown that faster rail service from O'Hare International Airport could put hundreds of thousands to work building out the system and create 13,000 jobs per year during the next 10 years of operation and maintenance.

Smaller communities can benefit from fast trains, too. Building high-speed rail in places like Albany, New York, with a population of just under 100,000, has the potential to produce $1.1 billion in new wages and create as many as 21,000 new jobs that will propel many into the middle class.

This isn't some pipe dream. We have a proven Amtrak system with a skilled workforce that can help to execute national passenger rail expansion. Amtrak has an established national network that includes an extensive reservation platform, mature relationships with the freight railroads and decades of demonstrated compliance with complex federal rail safety and other laws. And Amtrak's workforce has proven since the 1970s that even under the strain of anemic budgets and what seems like endless political sniping in Congress, it can sustain a national system. It isn't a lack of know-how that has blocked progress -- it is a dangerous austerity agenda in Washington that has forced America to run a transportation system that lives off of investments from the last century.

Earth to Washington: first-rate economies don't just pump funds into maintenance and upkeep of already-built transportation systems (although we don't even do that very well either). They also invest in groundbreaking, new projects that give people the opportunity to thrive -- and yes, be a part of an expanding middle class -- in an environment where success depends on a safe, reliable and modern transportation network.