Voters are fed up with highly volatile and sometimes confiscatory fuel prices for their vehicles and tired of being treated like cattle at airports. They finally are waking up to the benefits of mass transit, especially high-speed rail. That growing support was underscored in November when voters approved a number of multibillion-dollar state and local transportation bond issues. But that patchwork quilt raises the question again, Why is there is no coordinated national rail program? The time is now, say many experts, and the flood of economic stimulus packages can provide the pacemaker to revive serious rail in America.
Many decades ago the U.S. was a world leader in high-speed rail. Today it can be considered barely a runner-up, with nary a glimmer of hope in sight for a mag-lev train anywhere. Years of neglect and underfunding have knocked rail out of a planned national multimodal transportation system that should tightly link road, rail, air and water transport.
Transportation leaders in all sectors have been calling for a fundamental change in the funding and planning of all transportation infrastructure. The essence of their arguments is the same: Streamline the U.S. Dept. of Transportation and create a programmatic approach that looks at solutions, not silos. Currently, each mode of transport is governed by separate agencies that do not talk to each other, let alone plan together.
Amtrak and high-speed rail are not even included in the silos. With no federal commitment to a national transit program, efforts to create intercity and state rail connections, let alone high-speed ones, have largely failed, while Asia and Europe are building ever-more efficient and faster systems.
The incoming Obama administration must fulfill its stated goal of cutting government waste by listening to the chorus of experts who have urged for the streamlining and revamping of federal transportation programs. Reducing the rigidity of processes will allow more consideration of land use and other factors in transit projects, provide more incentives for private investment and encourage contextually appropriate solutions. This will help alleviate the chronic congestion, pollution and deterioration inherent in our roads and rail. There no longer can be stubborn loyalty to any one mode of transport over another because of vested interests.
Let’s not be afraid to invest big in ambitious programs like California’s high-speed rail program. We did it once with the Interstate highway system. We can do it again.