The debate over whether America should invest in a high speed rail service continues to be hotly contested and as usual it has become a political battle pitting Republicans against Democrats and Washington against state governments.
On one side are Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, Governor-elect John Kasich of Ohio, Governor-elect Rick Scott of Florida and Governor-elect Scott Walker of Wisconsin. All are Republicans and all are against spending taxpayer money on high-speed trains.
On the other side are Democrats, including Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer from California, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo of New York. They want Washington to give them the billions of dollars in high-speed funds that Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida and New Jersey don't want.
Meanwhile, a recent poll by the American Public Transportation Association shows nearly two out of three Americans (62%) would "definitely or probablyâ€ use high-speed rail for leisure or business travel if a system was built. Another 27% said they weren't sure while only 11% said they "probably or definitely would notâ€ use it.
The rest of the world seems to have already embraced the idea of high speed rail service.
Recently, Switzerland completed drilling a tunnel over a mile below the Swiss Alps for what will be the world's longest underground high-speed train. It's going to cost $20 billion. China has plans to build the world's fastest train from Beijing to Shanghai for $32.5 billion.
Meanwhile, in this country, states are fighting efforts to begin high-speed rail projects. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has stopped an $8.7 billion project to double the train capacity between New Jersey and Manhattan via a Hudson River tunnel.
Opponents claim it's an issue of the massive costs associated with building a high speed rail system, but further investigation shows that's just part of the reason. The question being raised is that in a country with a $14.3 trillion gross domestic product, are these relatively small financial outlays the real reason there is so much resistance to high speed rail service in the U.S?
Andy Kunz, CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSR) says the problem dates back some 70 years when America decided to spend most of its transportation money on roads and runways while other nations concentrated on building up their rail systems.
From Germany to the Eurotunnel under the Channel from London to Paris to Spain and Southern Italy, all of Europe's trains have formed a huge high-speed intercontinental rail service. Even though China started a few years later, it already has the world's longest high-speed rail network running some 5,000 miles and plans to double that length by 2020.
Before Europe and Asia embraced the rails, the U.S led the world in both freight and passenger rail service. In the 1920s trains that reached every city in America. But it wasn't long after the interstate highway system emerged and air travel become cheaper and easier that we transitioned into a nation of drivers and flyers.
So what caused us to derail the railroads? Some say it's the way we built our infrastructure with our suburban crawl and an ambitious highway expansion. If you're an American and live in the suburbs or the country, having your own car becomes your number one priority as soon as you're old enough to drive.
Meanwhile Europeans primarily remained in their dense cities and the need for a personal transportation vehicle was diminished. It wasn't until the recent economic crash when oil hit a high of $145 a barrel that we started to question our infrastructure and over-dependence on foreign oil.
High-speed rails that go 220 miles an hour are run on electricity. California could the first state to embrace this new and fuel efficient way to travel with plans to begin an 800-mile high-speed rail service that will carry riders between Los Angeles and San Francisco in two and a half hours.
The service is expected to save one-third of the energy per passenger of airplanes and one-fifth the energy per passenger of automobiles, reducing the state's demand for oil by 12.7 million barrels annually, according to the California High-Speed Rail Authority which is charge of the project.
California taxpayers passed Proposition 1A in 2008, allowing the state to sell $9.95 billion in bonds to help pay for the $45 billion project. It is expected to create between 500,000 to 700,000 over the five to seven years of development, along with 450,000 permanent jobs.
Those in favor of high-speed rail service point out that high speed rail service is the most economical form of travel for 500 to 600-mile corridors around the country. Proponents say those short routes are uneconomical for planes and too far for commuting by car. High speed rail service would create jobs while helping to unclog congested highways and runways.
The Obama administration announced recently that it is increasing stimulus funds to for the construction of high-speed passenger rail service on 13 planned corridor lines from $8 billion to $10.4 billion. A study conducted for U.S. Conference of Mayors by Siemens projects that by 2035 the plan could create 150,000 new jobs in Albany, Chicago, Orlando and Los Angeles.
Buffett on board
Our first tip off that high-speed rail service might be a good idea should have been when investment genius Warren Buffett bought Burlington Northern last year proclaiming that railroads represent the future. Granted, Buffett was talking about freight trains and their ability to transport goods and raw materials across the country more economically and efficiently than any other means and he noted that unlike trucks, freight trains don't have to compete on congested highways. The same argument is being used by supporters of high-speed passenger service.
Critics on the other hand say changing our rail service to accommodate high-speed trains will cost a lot more than it did in Europe or Asia. They note that rail service in Asia and parts of Europe is relatively new compared to 150 years or so in U.S. For example, as recently as the end of World War II, China and Japan had little or no rail service. They say that in Europe, Japan and China, their rail infrastructure is built from new concrete rail ties rather than wood. And because of the war, their rail lines could be laid as part of a development plan.
According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, there's a study underway to determine the feasibility of a high-speed rail service from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma to McAllen, Texas. Critics question whether there is that great a need for passengers to get from Oklahoma City to McAllen, Texas. The proposed route would go through populated parts of Dallas/Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, San Antonio and on to McAllen. But the train could only be "high-speed" if it does not have to slow through population area or at road crossings and critics question whether the costs associated with eminent domain and overpasses would be worth it.
And so the debate continues and whether the U.S. joins the rest of the world in high-speed passenger rail service will depend on what most things depend on in this country. If enough voters demand it and let their representatives know how they feel, the money will probably be found.
So it all comes back to you dear reader. Do you want to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, travel relatively inexpensively between cities 500 to 800 miles away or continue to fight the clogged roadways? You could also choose between passing nakedly through scanners or being groped by strangers instead of getting on a train that could have you at your destination in about the same time you'll wait to board your plane.