I only had time to hit Philly for one day to check out the 8th World Congress on High Speed Rail conference, held July 10-13. But what a day it was.

If the California legislature hadn’t narrowly approved bonds for the ambitious high-speed rail program, the mood would probably have been funereal. But it did, and high-speed rail advocates seized upon the occasion to express a lot of optimism. The lawmakers approved, and the governor has sinced signed, an $8-billion bill to get the starter system going in the Central valley, which the California High-Speed Rail Authority emphasizes has 7 million residents. (Since then, the passage of MAP-21 proved a bit of a damper for overall high-speed and intercity rail interests).

“This historic vote in California is an extraordinary opportunity to fulfill the President’s vision,” U.S. DOT secretary Ray LaHood told reporters at a press briefing.

I’ve seen LaHood at a gazillion press briefings on a variety of transportation topics. I frankly wasn’t anticipating that this would be anything special. But LaHood, usually quite scripted as inevitable for a federal official, surprised me. He actually got really passionate. It might still have been somewhat scripted, but he didn’t just utter his lines — he chewed them up.

A young reporter from a Philadelphia-area paper, trying to ask the tough questions, asked him about the partisan opposition to high-speed rail, with three Republican governors returning the federal funds.

LaHood first called attention to the reporter’s Millenial status (he looked to be in his 20s). “Who let you in here? Are you a blogger?” he joked.

Then he emphasized that “ONLY three” governors had turned down the money. “Michigan’s governor is Republican, and he accepted,” LaHood boomed. Pointing at the reporter, he added: “High speed rail is not going to benefit me! It’s going to benefit you! It’s up to us to leave to the next generation the next generation of transportation. We got the Interstate system. You’ll get high-speed rail.”

With that, he made his grand exit.

He did note that there was a long way to go, and that's putting it lightly. But the U.S. advocates remain hopeful. Considering the number of attendees from Asia and Europe, all veterans of building high-speed rail systems hoping to bring their experience to the U.S., they must be pretty hopeful too.