High Speed Rail For America? Not So Fast

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/132162111/132162147" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">
  • Transcript

The Obama administration awarded $8 billion in seed money to develop a nationwide, high-speed rail system, but questions remain about whether federal investment in high speed rail is worthwhile. Host Scott Simon talks with Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood about the Obama administration's efforts to create a network of high-speed rail systems across the country.


As we said, we're going to take a closer look at this issue with Ray Lahood, U.S. Secretary of Transportation. He's also a former Republican member of the House of Representatives.

Secretary Lahood joins us from his home is Peoria, Illinois. Thanks for being with us.

Secretary RAY LAHOOD (U.S. Secretary of Transportation): Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: The governors-elect of Ohio and Wisconsin have rejected federal money for high-speed rail in their states, and John Kasich, former colleague of yours, says, quote, "I'm still trying to find somebody in Ohio who wants to get on that train." Do you know of people who want to take a high-speed train in this country? Do you have any marketing info or something you can point to?

Sec. LAHOOD: Well, look at - when the President and Vice President announced their vision for high-speed rail, there was great excitement around America. And when we put out for requests for our first $8 billion that was in the stimulus bill, there was so much enthusiasm and so many proposals, we had difficulty making choices.

SIMON: But is that motivated, do you think, by the interest in getting jobs in this economy, or does high-speed rail address a real need in this country?

Sec. LAHOOD: I think the interest on the part of President Obama and Vice President Biden and our department is to put people to work. In an economy where better than nine percent of the people are unemployed, we need to find ways to put people to work.

The eight billion was originally put in the stimulus bill to create jobs. But if you talk to people around America, there's just a lot of enthusiasm. For example, in California, Scott, people have been working for 10 years on high speed rail plans. That's the reason they got the lion's share, $2.25 billion, to California of the eight billion.

Florida's been working on high-speed rail for more than 10 years. So I think the motivation in the country is around a lot of enthusiasm for high-speed rail. The motivation from those of us in Washington is to try and get people to work building high-speed rail.

SIMON: Yeah. I think people in the rest of the country might understand interest in let's say a San Francisco-Los Angeles spike. But let me ask you about a couple that are projected, if I might, in our home state - Chicago-St. Louis, Chicago-Dubuque, Iowa via Rockford. Now, I've been to Dubuque and like it, but with respect, wouldn't Chicagoans be more likely to go to New York or Miami in winter than they would Dubuque almost any time of the year?

Sec. LAHOOD: Well, of course they would. And we're right at the place, Scott, where the country was at when Eisenhower signed the interstate bill. Not all the lines were on the map and America wasn't connected. Fifty years later, America is connected by the interstate.

Twenty-five years from now, 80 percent of America will be connected with a high-speed rail. In order for people to get to Nebraska from Chicago, they don't go through St. Louis. They go through Iowa. That's the reason that we funded a line that will go from Chicago to the quad cities, which is in the western part of Illinois, through Iowa City, to Des Moines, over to Nebraska.

In order for people to get across the northern part of the country, you have to pick places where you can put the lines and ultimately put trains, and some of these train lines are going to be going to places that perhaps people think there's not as much enthusiasm, but there will be.

Our point too, Scott, is that if you build it they will come. When you build a bus line, a transit line, a light-rail line, a road, people use is.

SIMON: Secretary Lahood, there are other people who point out that we keep comparing ourselves in the U.S. to - we look at high-speed rails in Western Europe or, say, Japan, where the population density is a lot greater. And they say, but the United States is a continent as well as a country, and the comparison really should be to Canada or Australia, where they don't have a lot of high-speed rail systems.

Sec. LAHOOD: Well, I think that it will happen if you build the capacity. Currently the capacity doesn't exist. You can go from Chicago to St. Louis on Amtrak, but it will probably take you a day to get there. And you can get in your car and get there much quicker.

Under the proposal that Illinois has put forward as a part of the Midwest plan, you can go from Chicago to St. Louis with four stops, and do it in two-and-a-half hours, comfortably. And this is the case all over America.

Again, if you build it, if you make it comfortable, if you make it so you can afford it, and get there in a timely way, I believe this is what Americans want.

SIMON: Ray Lahood, secretary of transportation. Thanks so much for being us, Mr. Secretary.

Sec. Lahood: Thank you, Scott.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.