It was nice to see U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood come to Wisconsin and declare that "high-speed rail is here to stay."
LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois, occupies the important post of "token member of the opposition party" in the presidential cabinet. Bush's token Democrat, Norm Mineta, was also transportation secretary. Shows how much we care about transportation.
Nevertheless, there is a crucial difference between the role Mineta played role Bush and the job LaHood has for Obama. Whereas the former was little more than a manager who oversaw the management of highway funds, the latter is overseeing ambitious policy that conflicts with his party's know-nothing philosophy on transportation.
America's failure to invest in public transportation is a major problem economically, environmentally and culturally. Many of America's largest cities lack worthwhile downtowns because the city planning is entirely based on the automobile, in which people commute from the suburbs on highways into the city. I hold cars entirely responsible for the advent of Applebee's.
As discouraging as it is to hear the nattering nabobs of negativism decry public transportation, it was more depressing to see the Economist give such a skeptical view of an American transportation revolution:
California's plans were given a boost by Barack Obama's stimulus package last year. This earmarks a lump sum of $8 billion, plus $1 billion a year, to help construct fast rail corridors around America (see map). Such lines are common in Europe, Japan and, increasingly, China, yet the only thing at all like them in America is Amtrak's Acela service from Boston via New York to Washington, DC. It rarely reaches its top speed of 150mph (240kph) and for much of the way manages little more than half that, because the track is not equipped for higher speeds.
Acela, like virtually all trains run by publicly owned Amtrak, has to use tracks belonging to freight railways, whose trains trundle along at 50mph; passenger trains must stick below 80mph. Despite the excitement of railway buffs and the enthusiasm of environmentalists, high-speed rail in America is likely to mean a few more diesel-electric intercity trains at 110mph, not swish electric expresses going nearly twice as fast.
What does this mean? We need an even more aggressive investment package for high-speed rail. $8 billion is nothing in the context of transportation revolutions.
My hope is that the feds haven't spread the money for high-speed rail too thin. It would be better to see them put all their chips into one hugely successful project that will convince people nationwide that high-speed rail is something you want in your neighborhood.