Sunday, December 07, 2008

A Small Plea for Transportation Parity

I am told President-Elect Obama has an on-line suggestion box. If this turns out to be true, it will soon contain at least one note from an Eastern Seaboard voter who would very much like to see a change in the way our nation orders its transportation priorities.

We know already that Obama wants to pump up our "aging infrastructure" (as it seems always to be called) with billions of dollars worth of patches and struts. I say, how about a whole new system? One that relies far less on the resource-squandering, city-destroying, strip-mall enabling automobile; and far more upon one that has been successfully embraced by what a former cabinet-member once referred to rather contemptuously (in a more headstrong time for the U.S.) as "old Europe"?

I am talking about high-speed rail.

As an occasional traveler to Washington, I can attest to its attractiveness on a limited scale: the Acela, a slow-poke among the world's high-speed trains at about 150 mph, gets you from New York to DC in less than 3 hours. It feels like no time at all if you have even a moderately good book to read. Why can't this be speeded up, and why can't it do more than serve the Boston-Washington Corridor?

Can't we build a fast train that extends to Florida? If that is too much, a line from New York to Chicago is certain to be heavily utilized--and if the rails are laid well and the train moves at European-level speeds, the trip would probably take about five hours. It would easily compete with air travel, considering the deep circles of hell that our airports have become. What's better, trains are so much more fuel efficient than cars, this becomes almost a case by itself--for national security, even (if you want to stretch it).

Once, my family and I missed a flight from a city in southern Spain to Madrid, and we had a flight out of Madrid later in the day. It seemed we were in no position to make that flight back home. But we got on the Spanish "Ave" train, and it sped us to the capital at over 200 miles per hour. We ended up beating the missed plane by about half an hour. I have long regarded this as a stupendous achievement.

So, President Obama: all I want for Christmas is a promise that you will build a comprehensive high-speed rail system. Note, please build them as follows: Boston-Richmond; New York-Chicago; San Diego-San Francisco for starters.