During last year's Michigan presidential primary, John McCain made the mistake of saying that the hundreds of thousands of lost auto jobs weren"t coming back. Mitt Romney then blathered something about the triumph of the American spirit and promptly pulled off a 9-point win.
A little more than a year later, with Chrysler and GM in bankruptcy, no one could credibly claim that jobs will be flooding back to the industry.
So what now for the Rust Belt?
On Wednesday, U.S. Commerce Gary Locke was at a town hall in Holt, Michigan. That day, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Vice President Joe Biden were busy meeting with Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm in Washington about a Detroit-Pontiac-Chicago high-speed rail line. So I asked Locke if rail was an area for the auto industry to expand into.
He gave his enthusiastic endorsement.
"Oh, yeah," he told me. "As you see more construction of rail cars, high-speed cars, it's going to require new engineering, new products and services and that's the natural fit and extension for automotive dealers and suppliers and manufacturers."
Six hundred miles away in Washington, Granholm was on the same page.
"We have lots of capacity in Michigan and workers who know how to make things," she said.
It's a bit of an ironic partnership, sure, since GM killed Detroit's street cars in the 1950s and is a key reason why it is the only one in the top 20 cities lacking a decent transit system. But the days of Charles Erwin Wilson musing that "for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa" are long gone.
Linking up with rail makes perfect sense for a contracting industry, at a time when environmental and economic factors make expanding public transit a necessity.
Former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz (R-Battle Creek), who has been in the running for a White House job, is perhaps Michigan's foremost authority on railroads. He could be the logical person to help spearhead the autos' transition to rail. He notes the United States is behind the curve on high-speed rail, with countries like France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Japan establishing lines decades ago. But he said even with a White House push, it's still an uphill battle.
"It will take a real will on the part of the states and the Congress to get it done. Members of Congress from non-high-speed rail states will fight it," Schwarz predicted.
Light-rail would particularly benefit New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas, California, Washington, Oregon and Missouri, he said.
If the feds do subsidize the Detroit-Chicago line, Schwarz said, it will be a massive undertaking, but an opportunity to create a lot of jobs in construction and manufacturing. The project will require ballast, tie, track repair and replacement, regrading some curves to accommodate higher speed trains, modern signaling equipment, emergency stop capability for trains that miss signals, dedicated high-speed right of way, new passenger car with special wheels and brakes and new locomotives capable of 135 mph and above. New stations will be required in some cities, as well.
"This is a multi-multi billion dollar two decade project that should have been done long ago," Schwarz said.