THE BLOG
03/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

High Time for High-Speed Rail

If you believe the soothsayers at The Department of Energy, by about 2020 or so, America's transportation sector will reach a dubious milestone. At that point it will be kicking out around two billion metric tonnes of heat-trapping carbon dioxide per year.

Or not. There is another option, and President Obama again reaffirmed his support for it today at a town-hall meeting in Fort Meyers, Florida: Electrified high-speed rail, also known as HSR.

"Transportation is not just fixing our old transportation systems," the president said. "It is also imagining new transportation systems. I would like to see high-speed rail, where it can be constructed."

The president first pledged his support for HSR in his transportation plan, released a year ago on the campaign trail. "Providing passengers with safe high-speed rail will have significant environmental and metropolitan planning advantages and help diversify our nation's transportation infrastructure," he wrote.

They figured that out a long time ago in France, Germany, Spain, and Japan, and many other places, but in this country, there has always been something uncomfortably socialist about the idea. The official excuse was usually that America has too much geography without enough density.

It was more likely, though, that HSR didn't have a voice inside the beltway, or a sympathetic ear in the White House. With the exception of Amtrak's troubled Acela Express, for decades the country has shunted the concept onto the national passing track. The notion of comfortable and efficient 200 MPH+ Zephyrs and Flyers has proven a fringe crusade for a handful of academics and visionaries. You'd have about as much luck pitching a National Dirigible Fleet.

At least, until recently. The same day Obama swept to power, California voters passed Proposition 1a, which will establish a 220-mile-per-hour HSR system between Sacramento and San Diego. The state says the network, which it expects will be powered by renewable electricity, will reduce its dependence on foreign oil by more than 12 million barrels per year while heading off the annual release of 5.8 million metric tonnes of CO2.

Meanwhile, Amtrak ridership in the last federal fiscal year increased to 28.7 million, an 11 percent gain over 2007 -- marking the sixth straight year of increases and the highest ridership since congress forged the company in 1971. Last fall, President Bush signed a bill that gave the railroad nearly $13 billion in new funding. The legislation encourages development of HSR corridors, and contains $2B in grants for states to establish or enhance service between cities.

There are other encouraging signs that HSR is inching closer to reality in the United States.

"Over the past few months, I have been hearing so much about it -- like, 'We have to do this' -- from places we haven't heard it from before," says Richard Harnish, director of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association -- a nonprofit that has long worked to knit the region's cities together with welded steel.

"There are people coming into the conversation who have a lot more oomph behind them, private executives who are tired of taking their pants off to get on an airplane."

High speed rail is more than just an smart next move that could enhance continental mobility and American competitiveness. It taps into bigger themes: Within a matter of years, petroleum-based travel is expected to become so expensive that only the most affluent members of society will be able to take advantage of it. Americans are entitled to comfortable and efficient continental mobility, with dignity, and they know it.

How might this nation fund such a system? Pulling out of Iraq would help. You could also put a price on carbon, and funnel the revenues into a green infrastructure fund. There are obviously no quick fixes, here -- but ever-wider highways and sprawl are not answers.

"We have crossed the tipping point," says Harnish. "The question is, are we going to continue to dig the hole we are in, or do something to get out of it? Bailing out GM... that is really the wrong approach. We have to start figuring out how to convert our trips to trains and bicycles."

What might slow HSR? In the early 1990s, Southwest Airlines hired lobbyists to kill a proposed HSR project in Texas. Politically, there's no way that company, or any other airline, could get away with that today -- though short-haul air routes will be impacted the most.

Taiwan's recently-completed HSR system, while enjoying spectacular growth, is presently strangling domestic carriers: Most air routes between Taipei City and the island's western cities have been discontinued. The trains are simply easier and more comfortable that the planes, for about the same fare.

It's inevitable that America will decarbonize its energy sector. But it's vital that the country begin double-tracking the task by planning an efficient, low-carbon interstate transportation network. The proven technology exists. And we have the leadership to make Interstate 2.0 happen. Let's do so.

James Glave is the author of Almost Green: How I Saved 1/6th of a Billionth of the Planet. Follow him on Twitter.