“Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination,” Mr. Obama said. “It is happening right now; it’s been happening for decades. The problem is, it’s been happening elsewhere, not here.”That's for damn sure. It always boggles my mind that conservatives, who claim to be such ardent supporters of capitalist values, don't appreciate that high-speed rail delivers on the core capitalist value: it increases efficiency. It is vastly more efficient to travel by rail over short to medium distances than it is to travel by any other means.
There is some good coverage of this over at the California High Speed Rail Blog. The big problem, of course, is how do we pay for it. We really have to raise gasoline taxes. The problem there is that many people who drive long distances, particularly in the West, will see spending money on high-speed rail as something that will never benefit them. For many people, the benefits will come in the abstract; lower gas prices, cleaner air, lower greenhouse gas emissions. That's a classic problem with long-term governmental solutions; the cost is immediate and obvious, the benefit is long-term and abstract.
But there is reason to hope. First, there are many, many people in the Northeast who would love to see this. Those people have a disproportionate degree of influence on this, because the states in the Northeast are so small. There are therefore quite a few Senators who can be counted on to support this.
It's also helpful that Obama made it clear that this proposal encompasses many states, not just the ones in the Northeast. High-speed rail is proposed for every state on the East Coast, almost every state in the South (except Tennessee), and several of the states in the West, including Texas. I have a question about Tennessee if anyone can answer it: would high-speed rail benefit FedEx? It seems like high-speed rail could be used to deliver packages from Memphis to several other cities. Of course, FedEx doesn't have a hub just in Memphis any more. Which raises an interesting question: could high-speed rail be used for light freight, like packages? I have no idea, but I think it would be interesting.
In terms of public support, I am encouraged by the fact that more and more Americans are taking public transportation, particularly in response to the recession. I take it every day. Here in LA, we have plans to expand our subway, and voters passed a funding bill for that purpose last November. The more people take public transportation, the more people are likely to support this idea.
It's also fortunate, in a sad way, that the Big Three are in such bad financial straits right now, because there is no way in hell they are going to oppose this. In that respect, we are lucky, because the biggest losers from something like this would be car companies. And oil companies, but they are such villains in the public mind that if they oppose it, it would probably be a good thing.
On the other hand, building a high-speed rail line from Detroit to Chicago would mean lots of jobs for people in Michigan, which would be great.
This is the very beginning of redefining how Americans travel. This will take decades to implement. But at each stage, there will be more support. After a Detroit-Chicago line is built, few people in Michigan, Indiana, or Illinois will oppose expanding it, and their Senators certainly support it.
The one bummer about this announcement is that it is overshadowed, to an extent, by everything else that Obama is doing, like lifting the restrictions on Cuba, going to Mexico, releasing the OLC memos, etc. But the implications of this decision will last for decades, and then centuries. Long after Fidel Castro is dead, long after the US and Cuba have normalized relations, we will still be working on the railroad.