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Getting on Track: The President Lays Out a High-Speed Rail Plan

Peter Lehner

Posted April 16, 2009 in Solving Global Warming

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Standing in front of an audience of members of the transportation industry, policymakers local and state officials as well as NRDC staff (including Deron Lovaas, our transportation specialist, and me as representatives of the environmental community), President Obama this morning fleshed out his plans for launching the construction of a new high-speed rail system connection metropolitan regions across the country.

The new three-part program -- projects to remove bottlenecks in existing rail systems, building new high-speed corridors, and making drawing up even bigger rail plans - is being launched right away thanks to the unprecedented $13 billion downpayment from the recovery bill and his budget proposal. And I do mean right away: The Administration intends to announce the first round of projects, after a competitive process that will include analysis of greenhouse gas reductions of different projects (I asked), in September. So this is high-speed delivery of the first links in a new system.

To be at the White House at 8 am, I had to fly down from New York City this morning.  I hope soon to be able to train down for an 8 am meeting.  (I'm writing this on the train as I return; on the train I can participate in a conference call and don't need to arrive at the airport 45 minutes early.)

The President's speech was fantastic, and I encourage you to check it out at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uu4aQTexL-U or below:

The most moving passages were at the beginning:

"We have to build a new foundation for our future growth. Highways are clogged, airports are choked with traffic and we pump too many greenhouse gases into the air. What we need then is a smart transportation system equal to the needs of the 21st century. A system that reduces travel times and increases mobility. A system that reduces congestion and boosts productivity. A system that reduces destructive emissions and creates jobs. What we're talking about is a vision for high-speed rail in America."

And then, as he does so well, President Obama put each and every American into the picture:

"Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city. No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking of your shoes. [laughter] Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 mph, walking only a few steps to public transportation and ending up just blocks from your destination."  

Having had to travel out to the airport early today, take off my jacket and shoes, and stand in several lines, these words struck a particular chord with me.

He then talked about the fact that other countries have lapped us, several times, in the drive toward a high-speed rail system, concluding that: "[I]t's being done, it's just not being done here. There's no reason we can't do this. This is America! There's no reason why the future of travel should lie somewhere else beyond our borders."  Again, having recently returned from NRDC's office in Beijing, where I took a high speed rail to Hebei that was faster, quieter and smoother than the Acela I'm now on, these words seemed perfectly pitched to me.

He also quantified some of the benefits, including reducing need for foreign oil by millions of by and reducing CO2 by six billion pounds annually, which he pointed out is equal to removing one million cars from our roads.

Finally the President addressed those who think this should wait because we have too much on our plate. President Obama invoked Lincoln, who was pushing to connect east and west with rail while north fought south. The project brought everyone together, and the two lines heading to one another met in the middle with the "blow of hammer." A newspaper of the time editorialized: "We are the youngest of peoples but we are teaching the world to march forward."

He then called on all of us in the room and across the country, to support this effort since it will require sustained generational commitment. This is just the first step, but it's a great start, as Bill Millar of the American Public Transportation Association told me afterward. One of the key Members of Congress, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar, who will be instrumental to the whole endeavor, talked with me about the importance of the project as well. He seems to agree with the President, who quoted fellow Chicagoan Daniel Burnham's assertion that we should make no small plans since they don't have the power to stir men's souls. I hope so, because we will need him to champion this relentlessly in Congress.

I know NRDC is committed to pitching in. Kaid Benfield and Deron Lovaas on my staff have blogged about this on these pages and elsewhere, and my whole transportation team looks forward to working with the President, Vice President Biden, Secretary LaHood and their staff to get the job done.

As for me, I can't wait to travel to more destinations without having to remove my shoes at security!

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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