By Ray LaHood for Orlando Sentinel
It is difficult to imagine what America would be like without its interstate highway system. For decades, our state-of-the-art roadways have been the world’s envy – and rightfully so. They deliver products of agriculture and industry to market. They link people with schools, jobs, family, and health care.
America’s highways will remain a crucial component of our national transportation network well into the future. But we can no longer rely exclusively on roads as a strategy for economic growth over the long term. That is why the Obama administration has begun the heavy lifting of building a national high-speed-rail system that will spur economic development and job creation along its corridors.
For years, we have watched other countries pass us by as they build faster trains. Indeed, the benefits of high-speed rail are tough to ignore. It will seamlessly integrate large metropolitan communities and economies through a safe, convenient and reliable transportation alternative. It will ease congestion on our roads and at our airports. It will reduce our reliance on oil as well as our carbon emissions. And it will provide a much-needed boost to America’s hard-hit manufacturing sector during a time of economic struggle.
Since the president proposed his vision for high-speed rail last year, enthusiasm around the country has been overwhelming. To date, states have submitted applications for $64 billion — more than six times the amount of money available.
Interest in the program has come from the public and private sectors — from state governments, rail advocates, workers, environmentalists and a broad spectrum of businesses eager to help get America’s high-speed-rail industry moving. In fact, last fall, 30 foreign and domestic rail manufacturers committed to employing American workers and locating or expanding their base of operations in the U.S. if selected for high-speed-rail contracts. And the administration’s 100 percent Buy America requirement is sure to generate a powerful ripple effect as manufacturers buy supplies and as workers earn and spend their paychecks.
Recently, some naysayers have argued that we are moving too slowly. Others contend that states are laying track in the wrong places. Two governors-elect declined to move forward on projects that their predecessors initiated.
The fact is this kind of monumental endeavor must take place in a deliberate, thoughtful manner. As with interstates during the 1950s, we have neither drawn every single route on the map nor reached final agreements on every single financing arrangement. Few states are in a position to quickly spend billions of dollars without detailed planning. Building a nationwide network of high-speed rail lines is not as simple as repaving a road. This is hard work.
Nevertheless, signs of progress are clear. In Vermont and Maine, workers are installing track that was manufactured in Columbia City, Ind. Other states, such as North Carolina and Illinois, are laying groundwork for major construction in 2011. Florida is poised to become one of the first states with a true high-speed-rail line. And President Obama has committed to creating or improving 4,000 miles of track as part of his plan for America’s next major six-year transportation legislation.
The reality is that we cannot build our high-speed-rail network overnight. This sort of undertaking requires leaders of all parties and persuasions to come together. It requires states to work in concert. And it requires Congress and the administration to maintain focus and commitment.
By staying on track with President Obama’s vision, modern, high-speed passenger service could connect 80 percent of Americans and restore the United States’ economic competitiveness.
When we look to America’s past, it can be easy to forget that America was never predestined to have the world’s best highways. Progress only became possible because generations before us dreamed big and built big — because they imagined, invested and sacrificed for the infrastructure on which we rely to this day.
Like our parents and grandparents, we, too, must exercise the foresight and courage to invest in the most important infrastructure projects of our time. If we work together, a national high-speed-rail network can and will be our generation’s legacy.
Ray LaHood is U.S. secretary of transportation. // //