Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

On Board for Fast Trains

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

On Board for Fast Trains

Article excerpt

Obama's high-speed rail plan starts America down the track to a more efficient way of transport. But this high-cost investment will need long-term commitment from the public and private sectors.

"There's no reason that Europe or China should have the fastest trains," said President Obama in his State of the Union speech.

Actually, there is one reason that might hold back America from having a much-needed high-speed rail system: a long-term government commitment to fund it.

True, the Obama White House has worked up a head of steam in favor of fast trains. It has already dedicated $8 billion to them in the 2009 Recovery Act. And it hopes Congress will spend another $5 billion over five years to keep this idea moving.

Together, that would be more than three times the annual budget for Amtrak - a sum as energizing to regular train users as a locomotive whistle.

But the new spending won't complete even one train line that exceeds 150 m.p.h. - the definition of a fast train. It will help only two states, California and Florida, to build such lines (California's alone is expected to cost at least $45 billion). And it will improve speed and safety in other corridors around the country, such as St. Louis to Chicago, and Portland, Ore., to Seattle, but not break the 150 m.p.h. barrier there.

If Obama wants to be known for fast trains as Dwight Eisenhower was for interstate highways, he will need long-term buy-in from Congress, from state and local governments, and from private investors. To fund an investment this big, the support must be bipartisan, must include multiple funding sources, and must continue over administrations.

That may not be as hard as it looks, largely because reasons against high-speed rail are falling by the wayside.

One traditional one is that America is too spread out to make fast trains economically viable. But few people are talking about a system to connect the entire country. Over the years, the Department of Transportation has designated 11 "corridors" where high-speed rail would benefit highly populated areas. It's an approach that makes sense. …

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