A bet on better transit

Obama wants the United States to coast into the 21st century on rails.

With applause still hanging in the air after WednesdayâÄôs State of the Union address, President Barack Obama went to Tampa, Fla., to announce funding for high-speed rail projects provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Significantly, Obama is casting his vision of a high-speed rail network as the Interstate Highway System of the 21st century. While critics decry the idea of a massive new piece of infrastructure that would require indefinite federal subsidy, the same argument could certainly have been aimed at the interstate system 60 years ago. It is worth remembering that the interstates owe their robust health to nearly $60 billion in federal funds annually. Like the highway system, high-speed rail will purportedly provide substantial job creation and economic growth. While high-speed rail has been successful for decades in Japan and Europe, it faces unique cultural and geographical challenges in the United States. Vast swaths of the country will help foot the bill without seeing any benefits any time soon. Prominent billion-dollar rail projects that were green-lighted last week include lines between San Francisco and San Diego, St. Louis and Chicago, and Madison and Chicago via Milwaukee. Minnesota is slated for a connection to Chicago via Madison (with an eventual extension to Duluth), but the question of whether to route the trains through Rochester has held up the planning process. A token $1 million was awarded to Minnesota to further assess its options. Whatever the future of high-speed rail in America, Minnesota has missed the first wave of development.