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For those of us who view high-speed rail as essential for the future, it came as a bit of a relief last week to hear America's new transportation secretary say his agency is already moving ahead on the subject.
It's sweet music because the secretary, Ray LaHood, has not exactly been known as a champion of this mode of transportation, virtually absent in the United States.
In 2004...LaHood...a congressman from Illinois....called high-speed rail "a bad idea." He said the enormous cost of the mega-infrastructure was his main concern, but then he added: "People in rural Illinois are not for high-speed rail. They do not want a train traveling 120, 125, 150 miles per hour through the rural areas, and I support them on that."
Recently, however, after President Barack Obama tapped him for the Cabinet position, the Republican reminded an audience in Peoria, Ill., that he no longer represents rural downstate Illinois; he works for the president and the entire nation.
Then, on Wednesday, LaHood signaled that he really meant that. He said his agency has submitted a report to the president outlining at least six corridors for possible service as well as cost and timeline estimates. This came as welcome news to rail advocates who saw LaHood as a dubious choice for transportation secretary. Yes, he was a centrist Republican and a strong supporter of Amtrak, but he didn't strike a lot of Democrats as the perfect nominee to help steer America away from its highways-and-airports mindset.
Nations of Europe and Asia are far ahead of the United States in the development of high-speed rail, generally defined overseas as trains that travel at more than 125 mph. In Japan and France, where such transit is most highly advanced, electric-powered trains can travel much faster than that and are cleaner and more energy-efficient than automotive or aeronautic transportation.
LaHood acknowledged that a national system of high-speed rail would cost far more than the $8 billion in railroad funds included in the federal economic stimulus package. But he said high-speed rail was Obama's "top transportation priority," so something huge appears to be on the horizon.
It was a little unsettling that LaHood wouldn't identify the rail corridors being studied. High-speed rail projects are in various stages of planning in several parts of the country - especially in California, where voters in November passed a $10 billion measure to begin work on a high-speed rail link stretching from Sacramento to San Francisco to Los Angeles and San Diego.
In the Portland-Seattle corridor, however, such planning remains in the dream stage.
Congressional delegations from Oregon and Washington must make sure that the Northwest's vital transportation corridor is not left off any high-speed rail reports being reviewed at the White House.
RELATED: Cascadia Center Web page on inter-city rail