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Anyone who has filled up at the pump lately knows that more and more of our paychecks go to fill our gas tanks. If you've spent time on Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson - whether you're traveling during the weekday for a business meeting or driving on a weekend to visit family and friends - you know how much time Arizonans waste in traffic.
And when you consider that traffic on I-10 is estimated to triple by 2050, it becomes even clearer that Arizona needs to find solutions other than ever-wider highways for our transportation problems.
Arizonans wanting travel options in our state finally have a reason to cheer. The State Transportation Board recently approved Arizona's first-ever state rail plan, which prioritizes connecting Phoenix and Tucson with passenger rail. The plan also envisions eventually linking Phoenix with Los Angeles and Las Vegas through high-speed rail.
High-speed rail is a proven way to reduce congestion on our roads. It provides an alternative to inefficient intercity car trips in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Rail ridership around the country is at historic highs partly because people are so pinched for time. Rail travelers can work, relax or surf the Web during their commute.
The Arizona Department of Transportation's state rail plan estimates that passenger rail connecting Phoenix and Tucson could transport 1.9 million people each year. That's equal to 45 percent of the current traffic on I-10.
Ridership could end up higher with improvements to the transit systems in each city. And moving traffic onto rail creates additional benefits, such as reducing air pollution and public-health impacts such as asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
Perhaps most important to many Arizonans, high-speed rail is a proven way to create thousands of jobs and boost job growth in the long-term. With an unemployment rate of 9.3 percent in Arizona, building passenger rail can provide a needed shot in the arm for our construction and manufacturing sectors.
The experience in other countries ranging from Germany to Japan is that high-speed rail is a boon to regional economies. Business relies on the efficient movement of people and goods, and rail can move large numbers of people to job centers and tourism destinations.
Up until this point, one reason for a lack of investment in passenger rail has been a deeply held misconception that roads "pay for themselves" through gasoline taxes while other means of transportation rely on government handouts and subsidies. A recent Arizona PIRG Education Fund report, "Do Roads Pay for Themselves? Setting the Record Straight on Transportation Funding," documents that, in actuality, gas taxes barely cover half of the costs of building and maintaining roads.
The state rail plan is a sign that Arizona understands the benefits of passenger rail. Our state should prioritize transportation funds where the needs and benefits are greatest for the long term.
The rail plan is a promising move forward, but it is just the first step. Passenger rail connecting our state's two largest cities is essential for Arizona's economy. It is now up to our state's leaders to make it happen.
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