Summoning the ghost of Eisenhower, President Obama announced yesterday “a new era in American train travel” involving an $8 billion “down payment” for, and subsequent billion-dollar supplements every five years on a comprehensive high-speed rail system.The funding is part of the $64 billion in the stimulus package for roads, bridges, rail and transit and is being touted by the administration as the most sweeping investment in our infrastructure since President Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s.
The United States trails other developed countries in developing high-speed rail. The Spanish can travel the 386 miles from Madrid to Barcelona at speeds averaging almost 150 miles per hour. Japan’s Shinkansen links its major cities at speeds averaging 180 mph and France’s TGV train averages about 133 mph in carrying passengers from Paris to Lyon.
The only U.S. rail service that meets the Federal Railroad Administration’s 110 mph threshold to qualify as high-speed rail is Amtrak’s 9-year-old Acela Express route connecting Boston to Washington, D.C.
This is a good first step, but we have every reason to be guardedly optimistic. That said, with the recent HUD-DOT sustainability and transportation initiative, we can be a bit more hopeful.
It’s also encouraging that the administration, continuing a stead-as-she-goes route, is not being hyper-reactionary to high gas prices. Remember last summer when everyone was freaking out at $4-per-gallon gas prices? There was enough political will then to turn just about anything into fuel. Then the economy tanked, people stopped buying cars, gas prices went down.
But we all know that lower gas prices are only temporary and that, as Kaid Benfield, Rooflines blogger, and director of NRDC’s Smart Growth Program in Washington, DC, wrote in January, “smart growth and transit are a big part of the solution” as Obama vows to “fight climate change, tackle oil dependency and revive the U.S. economy.”