THE FUTURE OF TRAVEL.

Yesterday, Obama announced the release of a strategic plan to reshape the nation's ailing transportation system, with the goal of connecting all of America's major cities with frequent high-speed trains by midcentury. After a generation in which trains have been treated as relics of a bygone era, it's refreshing to hear the president champion rail as "the future of travel" with proven economic, environmental, and safety benefits.

The plan is designed to guide state DOTs in developing and submitting their rail project proposals between now and mid-2010 to take advantage of federal matching funds and the high-speed rail money in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Perhaps the plan's most revolutionary aspect is that it links the new national rail policy with transportation planning on the local level to "support interconnected, livable communities." This acknowledges that the best intercity trains in the world won't make a difference if they leave you with few options for getting around town when you get to the train station. Further, it promises that better local transit networks will complement the revamped rail system, potentially triggering a renaissance of urban areas designed for people instead of cars. The plan also mentions short-term investments meant to improve the operation of existing intercity trains by upgrading tracks, signals and equipment. Instead of waiting 30 years or more for futuristic bullet trains, we should expect to see better performance from existing Amtrak services within 15 years.

The Obama administration has jumpstarted a process that promises a myriad of benefits to Americans' quality of life, as well as a host of new skilled jobs that cannot be outsourced. But it's only the beginning. "Coupled with reliable funding of Amtrak assets and services," the plan admonishes, "an ongoing annual investment program is needed to build a 21st-century transportation network that includes a central role for high-speed passenger rail in corridors of 100–600 miles." Congress and state legislatures will need to continue to provide reliable funding to make this vision a reality, preferably through a dedicated pot modeled after the Highway Trust Fund, and the U.S. and state DOTs will need to sustain a coordinated planning and implementation process in cooperation with other public and private-sector entities. This is where we all come in as engaged citizens maintaining the issue's salience with our elected and appointed servants. As the president said in closing his remarks yesterday, "Let's get to work."

-- Malcolm Kenton

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