Bringing the country up to speed with 21st-century transportation

The Baltimore Sun

Rep. John L. Mica is pumped up about the incoming Obama administration. The congressman is one of Capitol Hill's most ardent proponents of spending big bucks on high-speed rail projects, and he sees the president-elect as a kindred spirit.

Mica has been traveling along the Northeast Corridor, pushing a plan to promote high-speed rail technology that could cut the time of travel from Washington to New York to less than two hours.

The huge project would require an investment of billions of dollars on such things as replacing the ancient Amtrak tunnels through Baltimore - a significant drag on travel times along the East Coast.

Mica thinks his dream project will be a comfortable fit with Barack Obama's plans for stimulating the economy.

"I have to give Obama credit. I've heard him talking about infrastructure. We heard him talking about high-speed rail," Mica said. By contrast, the congressman said, the Bush administration was "somewhat myopic" about rail transportation.

Just what you'd expect to hear from a big-spending liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, right?

Maybe. But Mica is a self-described "hard-core Republican" - just re-elected to his ninth term from a Florida district that includes St. Augustine and Daytona Beach. As the ranking minority member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he's part of a significant faction within the congressional GOP that could be described as "infrastructure Republicans."

It's a group with which Obama thinks he can find some common ground. He recently named one of their number, Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois, as his transportation secretary.

Mica sat down for an interview with me this month on what passes for high-speed rail in the United States these days - Amtrak's Acela train. I boarded at Penn Station and rode with the congressman to a news conference at Washington's Union Station, where he was to announce that the federal government had issued an invitation for Amtrak, state and local governments and the private sector to develop plans for high-speed rail from Boston to Washington and in 10 other corridors around the country.

The Acela on which we were riding averages 83 mph, but Mica and his congressional allies envision a system that will hit speeds of 250-300 mph.

High-speed rail is a notion that some transportation experts have dismissed as a huge waste of money. But Mica and his allies on both sides of the aisle got the go-ahead for planning written into a recent Amtrak bill.

"We've brought both Democrats and Republicans kicking and screaming into the 21st century of transportation," the 65-year-old lawmaker said. "This is a great job creator."

Mica said he and other advocates have been influenced by what they've seen in Asia and Europe, where high-speed rail systems currently hit speeds of up to 250 mph.

"We think the United States shouldn't become a Third World country when it comes to high-speed service," Mica said.

As reasons he believes the United States should pursue high-speed rail, Mica pointed to energy conservation, the economy's need for jobs and the state of our existing infrastructure. In particular, he said, the nation's airports - particularly around New York - are being overwhelmed with traffic. High-speed rail, he said, could provide a competitive alternative to short-distance flights.

It is by no means clear that the numbers for high-speed rail will work out. Applicants have nine months to put together financial proposals for projects in their corridors. None of these projects is likely to be ready in time to contribute to a short-term stimulus of the economy.

And there's the question of whether high-speed rail will yield benefits that justify the cost. An Acela train now takes 2 hours, 42 minutes to go from New York to Washington, with stops. Even with a hefty subsidy from the taxpayers, a ticket still costs $165. Would saving 42 minutes on the trip - the minimum required under the law - be worth the cost? What if you could reduce the time of going from Manhattan to Washington nonstop to an hour and a half?

The math isn't going to be as cut-and-dried as ideologues might argue. One factor is that one way or another, the Northeast Corridor - including the Baltimore tunnels - will have to be upgraded. Another is the productivity gained by shaving time off the trip between the nation's political capital and its financial center. Then there's the often-overlooked impact that big projects have in teaching young engineers problem-solving skills that will last a lifetime.

Maybe the numbers for high-speed rail won't work in the end. Big projects do cost a lot. But those costs have to be weighed against national peril in falling behind in areas of technology that 21st-century competitors such as China - with an existing 265-mph line between Beijing and Shanghai - are pursuing aggressively.

Mica and colleagues such as Rep. James Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat who chairs his committee, deserve our thanks for putting the issue on the nation's - and Obama's - agenda.

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