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The Register-Guard

A high speed agenda

Obama wants to spend billions for modern rail

President Obama believes in high-speed rail, and for good reason. Germany, China, Japan, Spain and other countries have super-speedy trains that zip people from one city to the next at speeds of up to 180 mph.

As for America — well, it has one high-speed corridor, from Washington, D.C., to Boston, and it averages a tortoise-like 90 mph.

In his recent State of the Union address, Obama pledged to make high-speed rail accessible to 80 percent of Americans by 2036. He envisions high-speed arteries around such hubs as Chicago, Southern California and the Northeast corridor. The government has designated 10 high-speed rail corridors, including one between Eugene and Vancouver, B.C.

As Obama has noted, high-speed rail is hardly a pipe dream. “It’s happening now,” he says. “The problem is that it is happening elsewhere.”

The president will need to keep a firm grip on that vision and determination as he pushes his ambitious new $53 billion plan for high-speed rail. Deficit-minded Republicans will oppose any major expansion of the $10.5 billion already spent on high-speed rail under the Obama administration.

The president makes a compelling argument that this country, despite the mounting federal deficit, must make major new investments in infrastructure. A modern rail system would improve problematic connections among communities, reduce traffic congestion and pollution, and generate skilled, family wage manufacturing jobs.

The administration’s plan was announced Monday by Vice President Joe Biden, who earned the nickname “Amtrak Joe” when he was a senator because of his daily rail commute between Washington, D.C., and his home in Delaware.

The plan calls for investment in three types of rail projects: a national high-speed rail network with speeds between 125 mph and 250 mph; regional lines where speeds would be increased to 90 mph to 125 mph; and lines with speeds of as much as 90 mph that would link to higher-speed regional or national lines.

It’s a realistic plan that recognizes that it will take time and money — lots of it — to transform this country’s rail system into a modern high-speed network. Consider that building a proposed high-speed line linking San Francisco to Southern California would cost more than $43 billion.

The Obama administration will face resistance from congressional conservatives who still oppose public funding for Amtrak, much less investing tens of billions of taxpayer dollars on high-speed rail.

New Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio have refused federal stimulus money for rail improvements, saying their states can’t afford their designated shares. The administration has reallocated most of that money to California and Florida, but other states, including Oregon, would snap up more eagerly if it were to become available.

Republicans should reconsider their opposition. High-speed rail would revolutionize travel in a nation where intercity passenger rail has become an afterthought. It would ease the strain on the nation’s highways, and reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions. In an increasingly carbon-constrained world, it’s hard to imagine any modern industrialized nation moving into the future without high-speed rail as an integral part of its transportation system.

As “Amtrak Joe” Biden said Monday, “If we do not” invest in high speed rail, “you tell me how America is going to be able to lead the world in the 21st century.”

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