For years, they were a staple of sci-fi movies. Shining steel rail lines crisscrossing high above the cities of the future as passengers inside were whisked around at fantastic speeds.
Now, President Obama wants to make them real. He said so the other day as that inveterate Amtrak rider/supporter Vice-President Joe Biden stood beside him, salivating.
Oh dear, I thought. Another pie-in-the-sky, so to speak, plan from our new I’ve-got-trillions-of-them president. So many problems, so few jobs — and now he wants to pursue the folly of high-speed, light-rail trains? Magnetic levitation? Billions and billions of dollars we don’t have for the infrastructure of tomorrow, that may or may not work?
But then he reeled me in. Japan does it. China does it. Germany, Italy, Spain and France do it. France!
This is America! Obama reminded me.
And it would be the carbon-dioxide-saving equivalent of getting one million cars off the road. It would help to save the planet! It would return to us millions of hours of lost productivity by getting millions of Americans out of endless traffic jams!
Obama proposes to spend $8 billion from the apparently bottomless stimulus funds to pursue his dream of high-speed trains connecting not just Boston, New York and Washington but his hometown of Chicago and California and the Pacific Northwest and Florida. And he wants to spend $5 billion more after that making certain his dream doesn’t die.
He invoked the interstate highway system that Dwight Eisenhower pushed in the 1950s and which we cant live without, even though it is crumbling. Now it is inconceivable to think of not being able to drive coast to coast without encountering a single red light. And don’t forget the railroad, when after years of effort, the final spike was driven and a telegram went forth telling the young nation, "Done!” But, at the beginning, both seemed like folly.
Imagine, said Obama, his eyes alight with vision, getting on a train in the middle of the city without a long drive to the airport, without sitting on the tarmac waiting for other planes to take off, without taking off your shoes.
Then he got on a plane to fly to Mexico to talk about why we can’t seem to stop illicit drug traffic or prevent flocks of undocumented workers sneaking across the border, dying in the desert or suffocating in trucks with on air conditioning.
The governors of eight Midwestern states quickly signed a letter seeking money from the stimulus package for the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, first proposed 10 years ago, to connect Chicago and St. Louis, Chicago and Madison, Wis., through Milwaukee and Chicago and Pontiac, Mich., through Detroit with upgraded equipment that would reach speeds of 110 miles per hour. There are about ten other corridors vying for the money.
Obama told all the states they are welcome to join the competition and apply through the Federal Railroad Administration. (Yes! There really still is such an agency tucked inside the labyrinthine Department of Transportation.)
Of course, maglev plans to connect Pittsburgh with its airport have been percolating for 19 years, going nowhere. Same fate for plans to connect Baltimore and Washington and another project in Atlanta. Officials are keeping their fingers crossed this is the magic year although the competition for state stimulus dollars is fierce, and the FRA has been kind of slow getting a high-speed intercity rail strategic plan in motion.
But Obama believes in the FRA and DOT. Make no little plans. That’s what Daniel Burnham said in Chicago, Obama said, announcing his intention to pursue vigorously high-speed rail in America. If you forgot, Burnham was an architect who designed the Plan of Chicago a century ago. Obama went on, "I believe that about America. Make no little plans. So let’s get to work.”
I’m more than ready. I can’t wait to hop on one of those hovering discs and be all-but-instantly transported miles away, without taking off my shoes. I’m sure Biden will be sitting in the next bench.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)