June 24, 2018
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Narrow-gauge politics


Never mind that Gov. Rick Scott of Florida has been dithering over whether to accept federal money for a high-speed rail project and that two other Republican governors have rejected it. President Obama’s vision of American bullet trains still seems to be moving forward. He can shift the money to California and New York, where fast trains are both needed and wanted.

Florida had seemed all set for an 84-mile high-speed line between Orlando and Tampa with trains traveling faster than 200 mph. Federal funding would make up 90 percent of the cost. The legislature had approved money for an Orlando-area commuter train system to connect with the fast rail. Construction was to produce 24,000 new jobs and a spurt of business growth.

But Gov. Scott, despite reassurances that private capital would make up any cost overruns, finally said, “I don’t see any way that we’re not going to be on the hook.”

Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio had already turned down federal high-speed rail help, and congressional Republicans and a conservative chorus have been scoffing at the projects as wasteful and unnecessary.

Most Mainers have never sampled the Japanese bullet trains or the speedy European trains that whisk passengers between major cities over smooth trackbeds. But most of us know plenty about the annoyances of present modes of travel: the traffic jams in the big cities and on the superhighways and the crowded airplanes with delays and  canceled flights and the struggles through security in stocking feet. With fast service from Boston down the coast, Mainers could get to Boston by bus and speed the rest of the trip in comfort and style.

High-speed rail has been talked about for many years. President Obama is the first to do something about it. His budget for the coming fiscal year set a goal of giving 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years. His vision compares with President Eisenhower’s plan for the interstate highway system and President Lincoln’s promotion of the transcontinental railroad.

The budget includes $556 billion for a six-year restructuring of the nation’s transportation systems. Of that total, $53 billion would go to upgrading the nation’s railroad transportation, with $8 billion as a starter. Amtrak would get $15 billion to improve its system. Truly high-speed rail would take up $28 billion.

Expectedly, Republican leaders jumped on the fact that the starting money was classified as “stimulus,” which they had contrived to transform into a hate word. That is ridiculous. When the country is barely emerging from the worst downturn since the 1930s, and with unemployment stuck at close to 10 percent, who could possibly object to stimulus?

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood noted that we built the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge in the depths of the Great Depression. High-speed rail is the same sort of visionary thinking.

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