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America in the Caboose While the World Barrels Ahead on High Speed Rail

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On Monday President Obama called on Congress to approve $50 billion for highways, landing strips and rail lines to stimulate the economy and create jobs. Specifically, to build or rebuild 150,000 miles of road, to lay and maintain 4,000 miles of rail track and 150 miles of runways.

Do we really need to focus on 150,000 miles of roads? They must be popping champagne bottles in the corner offices of the oil industry and at OPEC headquarters. Focusing on getting off the gasoline habit would have been a far wiser commitment.

More landing strips, encouraging us to fly, fly, fly, gulping ever greater quantities of fossil fuels? Maybe that's not such a good idea.

Then whatever is left over goes into rail infrastructure. And in this domain, a technology wherein we once led the world, we are now eons behind. There is little else in the president's proposal that would do as much for our economy and keep us on a competitive footing with nations whose governments are not beholden to oil lobbies. There is nothing that would so clearly address the blunders of past administrations that permitted the ripping up of rail lines and tramways throughout the land at the instigation of oil interests, and the once considerable sway of the automobile industry.

But a $50 billion program to deal with all these objectives? Assuming as much as half, or $25 billion is being set aside for rail, how does that compare to other nations who are already far ahead of us in providing modern up to date mass transportation for their citizenry, or at least far more farseeing in planning ahead.

France for one, with perhaps the most comprehensive national high speed rail network in the world, will be adding another 2,000 additional kilometers of track to accommodate high-speed rail by 2020 at a cost of 98 billion dollars. In comparison, proportionate to size and population, that would the equivalent of the U.S. committing at least $490 billion to a similar project.

China, in the time frame of one generation has built an infrastructure of high speed trains that leaves us in the dust. Major hubs are interconnected by trains speeding at some 300 miles per hour, while the rail travel time between many of our major cities is now slower than it was in the 1930's and '40s. According to Arianna Huffington's "Third World America" it now takes eighteen hours to travel by rail between Chicago and Denver, while back then the travel time was thirteen hours. According to an article in the China Daily in August of last year, China was planning to invest at least 700 billion yuan ($102 billion) annually from 2010 through 2012 on railway construction alone.

By comparison we are way behind and falling further behind every year. From the very outset our reticence, or perhaps lack of vision, of how a national program to rebuild our railways might impact our society was missing. The stimulus program initiated last year set aside but $8 billion for important rail service improvement, a sum perhaps more appropriate to Andorra or Grenada than the United States.

What is it that our government doesn't get? Where is the vision that at another time in an equally stressful economic environment rendered unto the nation such massive capital investments and infrastructural icons as the Hoover Dam (at the time of its building in the 1930's, the largest dam in the world), the Tennessee Valley Authority and the W.P.A.

A massive rebuilding and expanding of our railroad infrastructure would not just be a disbursement of stimulus dollars but a far sighted and needed capital investment that would pay off in spades through greater efficiencies, reduced dependence on fossil fuels, greater self reliance and an altogether massive improvement in the way we live and travel.

Instead of frittering away billions here and there in make work or politically driven earmark projects, rebuilding our rail system and bringing it into the 21st Century would engage the entire nation. And all of us would benefit.