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Obama outlines high-speed rail plans—will Americans respond?
For years, critics have said that widespread rail travel in in the United States will never happen, pointing variously to the development of commercial air travel, the expansion of American suburbia—and exurbia—and the development of the Interstate Highway System as major landmarks in the demise of passenger-rail.
While it’s still possible (even likely) that rail won’t rival air and car as a mode of choice for most Americans, we’ll soon have our first real chance to find out, as the President today laid out his plans for high-speed passenger lines in the U.S., as reported by CNN and others.
The president’s plan identifies 10 potential high-speed intercity corridors for federal funding, including California, the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, the Southeast, the Gulf Coast, Pennsylvania, Florida, New York and New England.
It also highlights potential improvements in the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor running from Washington to Boston, Massachusetts.
Each of the corridors identified by the president’s report are between 100 and 600 miles long. The blueprint envisions some trains traveling at top speeds of over 150 mph.
Federal grants would also be directed toward separate individual rail projects that are deemed “ready to go,” with preliminary engineering and environmental work already completed.
"My high-speed rail proposal will lead to innovations that change the way we travel in America. We must start developing clean, energy-efficient transportation that will define our regions for centuries to come," Obama said at an event near the White House.
The conversion of the United States to a rail-based populace, even partially, will take major infrastructure improvements, as noted in the some of the President’s plans. But it will also take a shift in the mindset of millions of Americans.
There are some pieces in place that may help to ease the transition:
- When high fuel costs return, due either to cap-and-trade policies or the whims of OPEC, will hit the automotive and air industries much harder than rail. This could help passenger rail compete economically.
- Recent city planning efforts—combined in part with the collapse of the housing market—indicate a slight shift back from the exurbanization of America, and we have seen efforts to rebuild the cores of cities, putting more people closer to major rail stations.
- Billions in stimulus money, as well as the additional dollars that President Obama seeks in future budgets, will provide a head start.
Despite the economic and structural aids to enhancing the profile of high-speed rail, selling the US on rail travel will require a change of mindset, both for legislators and for individual consumers.
The concept of public transportation has seemed anathema to American popular culture, since theadvent of the automobile. Drive-in movie theaters were an example of this trend, shifting the movie going experience from a public event to a collection of simultaneous private viewings. And the drive-in experience would prove to be only a transitional phase, as it was eventually replaced by VCRs, big-screen televisions, and now a cascade of HDTV, OnDemand, Netflix, et al.
Similarly, the popularization of automobiles fed into Americans’ sense of private and personal space, whether that be characterized by homesteads, Teddy Roosevelt’s rugged individualism, or the suburbanization (and later, exurbanization) of housing.
Today, with the exception of air travel, and a few subways systems such as New York City’s, public transportation is seen by many as distasteful or inferior to private commuting, even when the public transport opportunities are plentiful, less expensive or more time-efficient. In a city such as Washington, D.C., where the metrorail system has millions of riders, many (often white, middle to upper-middle class) Washingtonians find the Metrobus system to be either overly complicated or somewhat distasteful. Part of it may be grounded in actual delays or personal experience, but much of it comes from a mindset that was ingrained into many of us from a young age.
While making infrastructure improvements and bringing down costs is crucial, addressing the task of changing American mindsets—to incorporate rail travel as a more “acceptable” form of travel/commute, may wind up be the most significant challenge that the Obama administration faces on high-speed rail.