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“Make No Little Plans”: Obama Lays Out Ambitious High-Speed Rail Plan
Joe Romm, 17 Apr 09


[Click to enlarge to big PDF.]

President Obama laid out a sweeping vision for high-speed rail in this country yesterday. Obama has already secured $8 billion in funding in the stimulus bill and plans to pursue another $5 billion over the next 5 years.

One thing is very clear about transport in this country in the not-so-distant future: Once the global recession ends, oil prices will resume their inevitable march to record levels (see “Merrill: Non-OPEC production has likely peaked, oil output could fall by 30 million bpd by 2015” and “Normally staid International Energy Agency says oil will peak in 2020“).

Problem is, once you get past $150 a barrel for any sustained period of time, the business model of the domestic airline industry is no longer viable. What happens beyond $200 a barrel is anybody's guess. So even ignoring the urgent need for deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, the future for air travel is not a bright one.

High-speed rail is one of many strategies the country must embrace -- and quickly. I will blog on others in the coming weeks.

You can read the full Department of Transporation strategic plan here. And here are some excerpts from Obama's Kennedy-moonshot-esque speech:

If we want to move from recovery to prosperity, then we have to do a little bit more. We also have to build a new foundation for our future growth. Today, our aging system of highways and byways, air routes and rail lines is hindering that growth. Our highways are clogged with traffic, costing us $80 billion a year in lost productivity and wasted fuel. Our airports are choked with increased loads. Some of you flew down here and you know what that was about. We're at the mercy of fluctuating gas prices all too often; 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. 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 off your shoes. (Laughter.) Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination. Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America.

Now, all of you know this is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future. It is now. It is happening right now. It's been happening for decades. The problem is it's been happening elsewhere, not here.

In France, high-speed rail has pulled regions from isolation, ignited growth, remade quiet towns into thriving tourist destinations. In Spain, a high-speed line between Madrid and Seville is so successful that more people travel between those cities by rail than by car and airplane combined. China, where service began just two years ago, may have more miles of high-speed rail service than any other country just five years from now. And Japan, the nation that unveiled the first high-speed rail system, is already at work building the next: a line that will connect Tokyo with Osaka at speeds of over 300 miles per hour. So it's being done; it's just not being done here.

There's no reason why we can't do this. This is America. There's no reason why the future of travel should lie somewhere else beyond our borders. Building a new system of high-speed rail in America will be faster, cheaper and easier than building more freeways or adding to an already overburdened aviation system –- and everybody stands to benefit.

High-speed rail was included in the stimulus plan because it achieves multiple objectives that are crucial to creating sustainable prosperity and jobs in this country. As VP Biden said in his intro:

And we're making a down payment today, a down payment on the economy for tomorrow, the economy that's going to drive us in the 21st century in a way that the other -- the highway system drove us in the mid-20th century. And I'm happy to be here. I'm more happy than you can imagine -- (laughter) -- to talk about a commitment that, with the President's leadership, we're making to achieve the goal through the development of high-speed rail projects that will extend eventually all across this nation. And most of you know that not only means an awful lot to me, but I know a lot of you personally in this audience over the years, I know it means equally as much to you.

With high-speed rail system, we're going to be able to pull people off the road, lowering our dependence on foreign oil, lowering the bill for our gas in our gas tanks. We're going to loosen the congestion that also has great impact on productivity, I might add, the people sitting at stop lights right now in overcrowded streets and cities. We're also going to deal with the suffocation that's taking place in our major metropolitan areas as a consequence of that congestion. And we're going to significantly lessen the damage to our planet. This is a giant environmental down payment.

Kudos to Obama and Transportation Secretary LaHood.

Obama ended his remarks with another eloquent, history-minded dismissal of his status-quo-defending critics [David Broder, this means you]:

Now finally, there are those who say at a time of crisis, we shouldn't be pursuing such a strategy; we've got too many other things to do. But our history teaches us a different lesson.

As Secretary LaHood just mentioned, President Lincoln was committed to a nation connected from East to West, even at the same time he was trying to hold North and South together. He was in the middle of a Civil War. While fighting raged on one side of the continent, tens of thousands of Americans from all walks of life came together on the other. Dreamers and risk-takers willing to invest in America. College-educated engineers and supervisors who learned leadership in war. American workers and immigrants from all over the world. Confederates and Yankees joined on the same side.

And eventually, those two sets of tracks met. And with one final blow of a hammer, backed by years of hard work and decades of dreams, the way was laid for a nationwide economy. A telegraph operator sent out a simple message to a waiting nation. It just said, "DONE." (Laughter.) A newspaper proclaimed: "We are the youngest of peoples. But we are teaching the world to march forward."

In retrospect, America's march forward seems inevitable. But time and again, it's only made possible by generations that are willing to work and sacrifice and invest in plans to make tomorrow better than today. That's the vision we can't afford to lose sight of. That's the challenge that's fallen to this generation. And with this strategy for America's transportation future, and our efforts across all fronts to lay a new foundation for our lasting prosperity, that is the challenge we will meet.

"Make no little plans." That's what Daniel Burnham said in Chicago. I believe that about America: Make no little plans. So let's get to work. Thank you, everybody. (Applause.)

That would be Daniel Hudson Burnham, "an American architect and urban planner," who was "Director of Works for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago," helped rebuild Chicago after the great fire, and designed several famous buildings, including Union Station in Washington D.C. His full quote is:

"Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will not themselves be realized."

This piece originally appeared in Climate Progress.

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Comments

This idea is brilliant and long overdue. We should build so that we have transportation options -- not just going by car for short to long distances or airplane for long distances, but going by foot or bicycle for short distances, car, bus, or train for medium to long distances, and train or airplane for very long distances.

I would avoid driving and flying whenever possible if I only had other options!


Posted by: John G. on 18 Apr 09

This is also the Centennial year of Daniel Burnham's 1909 plan of Chicago. There is a ton of cool stuff going on! (From urban planning and closing trail gaps to the Burnham Plavilions in Millennium Park).

This is really a catalyst year. It's wonderful to see President Obama embrace the spirit of Burnham.


Posted by: elizabeth ann on 18 Apr 09

I would love to have high-speed trains...but I'm skeptical... I would rather go for broke. If we're going to get trains, I would rather go massively, head-over-heels into debt and hope that the war-level spending will stimulate the economy and create jobs and leave us with something useful...rather than a train that barely goes faster than my car--but provides less convenience and costs more....

John Tantillo has a marketing and branding blog on which he publishes weekly brand winner/loser post. Last week, he named "The Train To Nowhere" the loser, and he makes some very good points, asserting that it does not respond to any real need but instead follows the "build-it-and-they-will-come" model adopted by the now infamous American automakers. But with the added side-effect of disincentivize the development of alternatively-powered vehicles, with any (unlikely) success also putting further strain on already-struggling airlines. Since the supposed "high-speed" rail would not even be considered as such in other countries, Tantillo characterizes this proposal as greenwashing: "Thus another sin against marketing: window-dressing your brand as something it is not."
Full post: John Tantillo's Brand Winner... And Loser: The U.S. Navy and the Train To Nowhere.


Posted by: sloane on 21 Apr 09

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