Founded in 1993, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association is an advocacy group whose goal is to increase the connectivity of cities in the Midwest region.

With a vision to have all cities in the Midwest accessible within a three-hour travel window of Chicago via high speed rail, the group aims to educate the public and government leaders to effect change. In the following interview, Rick Harnish, Executive Director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, expands upon that vision, and why he feels it is imperative to the economic vitality of the region.

MuniNet: The Midwest High Speed Rail Association was founded in 1993, and has certainly grown since then. In what ways have the goals/vision remained the same, and in what ways have they changed over the past decade?

Harnish: The Association was founded with just 20 members in 1993, and has grown to nearly 1,700 members today. We began with the simple proposal that hub cities in the Midwest should be connected by a high-speed rail system that would make it possible to travel from one city to the next within a two- to three-hour window. That broad-scale premise remains our goal, and we’ve approached the process by taking small steps, one at a time.

Every other industrialized country in this world has some type of high-speed rail system in place, and our mission is to make this mode of transportation a reality here in the U.S. – starting with the Midwest.

While our vision has remained the same, what’s changed is our notion of how quickly we could make it happen. Funding obstacles and policy development have contributed to slower-than-anticipated progress.

MuniNet: Here’s a very basic question for you: What exactly is high speed rail system?

Harnish: Defining a high speed rail system is a little like defining an interstate highway system; the answer will vary from place to place. In general, a high speed rail system is a network of trains that can travel at a speed of 110 miles per hour or more. Most will run on a combination of new and existing tracks.

MuniNet: What are the key ways in which a high speed rail system can benefit Midwest cities?

Harnish: Alleviating traffic congestion, managing high fuel costs, and protecting the environment are all advantages offered by the creation and implementation of a high speed rail system, but the key benefit is connectivity throughout the region.

While technology has made it possible to communicate via teleconference, email, and other channels, true collaboration necessitates face-to-face interaction. The three-hour travel window allows a person to leave home at a reasonable hour, arrive in their destination city by mid-morning, have a productive meeting, and still arrive back home by mid-evening.

MuniNet: Is a high speed rail system expensive to develop?

Harnish: To put the cost in perspective, consider the following comparison: The cost of adding a third lane of highway for the 40-mile stretch that runs between the Illinois state border and Milwaukee’s Mitchell Field Airport would pay for a rail system that would connect Chicago to Minneapolis at 110 miles per hour, Chicago to Green Bay at 110 miles per hour, and extend the existing Metra train line from Kenosha all the way to Madison.

MuniNet: What is the primary source of funding for these projects?

Harnish: The infrastructure stimulus package that will be considered during the first week of President-Elect Barack Obama’s administration will provide a critical opportunity to secure funding for passenger rail systems; however, we need a sufficient portion – at least $5 billion – of that package to be devoted to high speed rail.

MuniNet: What type of impact has the current economy and/or recent election had on your efforts?

Harnish: At various points over the past decade – in 2001 and 2005, for example – we’ve experienced crises that have pointed to the need for faster trains linking our cities. More recently, higher fuel costs and a recessionary economy have prompted a higher level of civic involvement, encouraging more and more citizens to become engaged in political process.

MuniNet: What needs to happen in order for high speed rail to become a reality in the Midwest?

Harnish: The higher ranks of the incoming administration have been vocal in their support of high speed rail, which is good news.

As a country – and as a region – we have to move from the mindset that a high speed rail system “ would be nice” and instead agree that such a system is essential to the to our cities’ economic vitality.

Starting at the local level, citizens need to become involved, and clearly express their support for this vision. Local leaders who understand that the development of a high speed rail system needs to become an urgent priority will be instrumental in helping to pass legislation and secure funding for these projects.

Richard Harnish, Executive Director

Rick Harnish is the Executive Director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a membership-based, non-profit organization whose goal is to increase the connectivity of all cities in the Midwest via high speed rail.

Voice Your Support for High Speed Rail

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association is asking for public support in securing funds for the development of a high speed rail system from the upcoming federal stimulus package.

To voice your support, click on the site’s online petition, which will send emails to your Congressional representative, senators, and President-Elect Barack Obama. You can simply complete the form with your personal information and send a standard vote of support, but you also have the option to customize your message to address a local rail issue.