March 2010

High-Speed Rail to Bring Jobs,
Challenges For IBEW
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People with big dreams about an American high-speed rail network see grand things in the nation's not-too-distant future.

By 2020, they envision trains moving at more that 200 miles an hour through California's Central Valley between Los Angeles and San Francisco. They see passengers transported at breakneck speeds across the seemingly endless miles of Illinois cornfields that connect Chicago and St. Louis. And they dream of trains gliding effortlessly across the marshy land that lies between Orlando and Tampa, with a stop just miles from Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

The bold plans are closer to reality than ever before, thanks to President Obama's January announcement of $8 billion in high-speed rail grants. While challenges lie ahead for unions trying to get their fair share of the work, new and upgraded train lines could mean tens of thousands of new jobs for IBEW members in construction, rail maintenance, communications and related fields.

"Getting people back to work is the highest priority," IBEW International President Edwin D. Hill said. "High-speed rail creates jobs and puts us on the forefront of a whole new transportation infrastructure for America."

The largest chunks of the railway stimulus money will go to projects in California, Florida and Illinois, with smaller amounts awarded to 28 other states. No area will get enough money to fully fund its project right away, but the federal government promises more rail dollars in the years ahead.

California, where a shovel-ready plan for high-speed rail is already in place, gets the most money now, about $2.25 billion. The Web site for the state's high-speed rail authority already features slick, computer-produced simulations showing trains marked "Fly California" whisking passengers across cities, farmland and desert. The simulations also depict new, soaring train terminals and the commercial development that could spring up around them.

A main line would first connect Anaheim to San Francisco, a trip that now requires a seven-to- eight-hour commute on congested Interstate 5. The trip will take just 2½ hours by high-speed train. Later additions to the 800-mile system would extend south to San Diego and north to Sacramento.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger calls it the largest public works project in the nation and predicts the creation of more than 120,000 construction-related positions and another 450,000 long-term jobs.

"[It is] desperately needed good news for hundreds of thousands of unemployed California workers," said Art Pulaski of the California Labor Federation.

High-speed rail could also be good news for IBEW locals in the Midwest. A train line through central Illinois would produce an initial 40,000 construction-related jobs, according to the Midwest High Speed Rail Authority, a non-profit group that advocates for an extensive train system linking cities throughout the region.

Passengers on the 220-mile-per-hour trains will travel from Chicago to St. Louis in less than two hours—a trip that now takes five to six hours on the highway.

The railway brings the promise of construction jobs to Springfield, Ill., Local 193. In February, one out of every three members of the local was out of work.

"We think it's great and it will definitely mean jobs," said Local 193 Business Manager Dave Burns. "But only if it's done right."

Burns and other local leaders enthusiastically support the high-speed rail line, but worry that the elevated or below-grade tracks that come with it could create a major divide through a thriving business district near the Illinois State Capitol, eventually cutting off development in the area. A nearby medical center, where expansion projects have provided steady work for inside wireman over the past few years, sits right near the proposed alignment.

"We want this high-speed line," Burns said. "We just want to make sure it can create jobs both now and in the years to come."

With high-speed rail on the fast track in some places, there is still a question about how unions, including the IBEW, can jump on board. In some places, getting a share of the coming batch of jobs might mean a protracted battle—in state legislatures, courtrooms and the media—pitting the IBEW and the rest of organized labor against anti-union forces.

"We're going to have to fight for these projects and the jobs that come with them," said Bill Bohné, Director of the Railroad Department at the IBEW, which represents more than 11,000 railroad workers in the U.S. and Canada. "We can get the work, but it's going to be a battle for a lot of it."

The fight to win jobs could be particularly tough in Florida, where $1.25 billion of the president's stimulus money will spark development of an 84-mile high-speed stretch from Orlando International Airport, in the center of the state, to downtown Tampa, on the Gulf Coast. Trains would run at an average speed of 120 miles per hour, cutting the trip from an hour-and-a-half by car to just under 45 minutes by rail.

Labor leaders face a huge challenge from the state's Republican-controlled government and from Florida's transportation department, which will oversee design and construction of high-speed rail. Stephanie Kopelousos, the woman in charge of the agency, was appointed by and answers directly to Republican Gov. Charlie Crist.

"The Florida Department of Transportation is not a friend of labor," said Florida AFL-CIO President Mike Williams. At a joint conference with its biggest contractors last year, the state agency held a panel discussion aimed at showing companies how to keep their work forces union-free, he said.

Williams and other labor leaders now have to convince the governor's office, contractors and the public that using union workers will not raise the cost of the project and will ensure a quality finished product.

"When you have trains running at 100 to 200 miles per hour, you better make sure the people who build and maintain the system know what they're doing," said Williams, a former business manager at Jacksonville, Fla., Local 177. "We have the most highly-trained, highly-skilled work force in the country."

Florida also is considering a plan that would bundle the project's design, build-out and maintenance into a single contract to be awarded to just one company. That means competition from overseas—including firms from France, Germany and Japan, where high-speed rail is far more advanced than in the U.S.

"Ultimately, we want the infrastructure and the trains built here at home by union workers with the true expertise," said the Railroad Department's Bohné.

When high-speed rail finally does come to places like Florida, California, Illinois and elsewhere, economists predict the stops along those lines could become a big boon for local economies, creating even more jobs.

In Normal, Ill., planning is almost complete for a $50 million multi-modal transit center to serve existing Amtrak trains and the new high-speed rail line. The project will put at least 20 electricians from Bloomington Local 197 back to work in the next few months, and will likely mean many more jobs in the years ahead. The local just finished work on a nine-story hotel and conference center adjacent to the new station.

"These projects are just the beginning," said Business Manager Lance Reece. "Looking ahead, we can see how high-speed rail turns our area into a huge incubator for business. It's a tremendous way to get our people to work."

An artist's conception of California's proposed high-speed train system.

Sprawling new rail stations will spur development and bring jobs to local communities.

Photos courtesy of California High-Speed Rail Authority