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The White House

Remarks by the President and the Vice President on High-Speed Rail

Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release                             April 16, 2009 
 Room 450
Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building
9:33 A.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  (Applause.)  I promise these comments will be shorter than the ride -- (laughter) -- a ride, Mr. President, I've taken about a thousand times with Rob Andrews and Frank Lautenberg and others in the Northeast Corridor.  But what gem we've had in the Northeast Corridor.  It's time it gets extended throughout the country and improved. 
Mr. Secretary, thank you.  You know, we often refer to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as I've been going around the country -- shorthand I call it the Recovery Act, Mr. President, for short.  But today, we're here to talk about the other part of the effort, the reinvestment -- the reinvestment part of the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the commitment to building our nation's future.
And you see while the vast majority of what we're doing in the Recovery Act is about short-term job creation -- as it should be, and is our top priority -- we also set aside some funds to build America's long-term economic future, which you all understand very well, assembled in this room. 
And we're making a down payment today, a down payment on the economy for tomorrow, the economy that's going to drive us in the 21st century in a way that the other -- the highway system drove us in the mid-20th century.  And I'm happy to be here.  I'm more happy than you can imagine -- (laughter) -- to talk about a commitment that, with the President's leadership, we're making to achieve the goal through the development of high-speed rail projects that will extend eventually all across this nation.  And most of you know that not only means an awful lot to me, but I know a lot of you personally in this audience over the years, I know it means equally as much to you. 
With high-speed rail system, we're going to be able to pull people off the road, lowering our dependence on foreign oil, lowering the bill for our gas in our gas tanks.  We're going to loosen the congestion that also has great impact on productivity, I might add, the people sitting at stop lights right now in overcrowded streets and cities.  We're also going to deal with the suffocation that's taking place in our major metropolitan areas as a consequence of that congestion.  And we're going to significantly lessen the damage to our planet.  This is a giant environmental down payment. 
All in all, we're going to make travel in this country leaner and a whole lot cleaner.  And as we look to the future, we're going to ensure that we can travel through the system that is sound, secure and able to handle full-speed-ahead progress for this new economy.
You know, as it's been mentioned often, I'm not sure it's good or bad, but my father referred to my many commutes -- it exceeded over 7,900, they tell me -- he said one day before he died -- he said, you know, honey -- he said, "That is the definition of a misspent adulthood, sitting on a train."  (Laughter.)
But I've -- I have, like many in this room, devoted most of my career to doing what I can to support America's rail systems.  So I'm really proud to be part of an administration led by a man who has real vision; real vision about how to not only transform this country generally, but transform our transportation system in a fundamental way.  It's about time we took those railways and made them the national treasures they should be.  They're the best way to reconnect and connect communities to each other to move us all forward in the 21st century.
And many people deserve credit for this:  the great congressional leaders who've been introduced today, many of you -- if I started going through the audience, the people I've known who have been working in the vineyards in this, we'd be here all day, Mr. President.  But there are so many critical aspects of this, so many supporters in state capitals among the cities, among the governors.
But on behalf of those of us who've been waiting for this day for decades, Mr. President, I want to pay particular thanks to three people.  And the first is Secretary LaHood for his leadership and vision.  He jumped right into this job and he didn't miss a step, didn't miss a beat, and was ready to go from day one.  And this is very uncharacteristic of me, Mr. President, but I want to thank Rahm Emanuel.  (Laughter.)  Not only as smart as a devil, not only as a former congressman, I believe, Mr. President, it was Rahm's tenacious, tenacious persistence that led to getting this high-speed rail funding in the Recovery Act.  It was at your direction, but I'm not sure it would have been able to have been done without Rahm.  And third, to the man who in this area is, as so many others, has turned the years of talk in Washington into a season of action, President Barack Obama. 
Ladies and gentlemen, join me in welcoming the man who's making this possible.  And this will be one of the many parts of a great legacy he's going to leave -- President Barack Obama.  (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you very much.  That is a wonderful reception, and I want to, in addition to Ray LaHood and Joe Biden, Rahm Emanuel, all of who have worked on this extensively, I also want to acknowledge Jim Oberstar and Rob Andrews, two of our finest members of Congress, both people who understand that investing in our infrastructure, investing in our transportation system pays enormous dividends over the long term.  So I'm grateful to them.  (Applause.)
You know, I've been speaking a lot lately about what we're doing to break free of our economic crisis so to put people back to work and move this nation from recession to recovery.  And one area in which we can make investments with impact both immediate and lasting is in America's infrastructure.
And that's why the Recovery and Reinvestment Plan we passed not two months ago included the most sweeping investment in our infrastructure since President Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s.  And these efforts will save money by untangling gridlock, and saving lives by improving our roads, and save or create 150,000 jobs, mostly in the private sector, by the end of next year.  Already, it's put Americans back to work.  And so far, we're ahead of schedule, we're under budget, and adhering to the highest standards of transparency and accountability.
But if we want to move from recovery to prosperity, then we have to do a little bit more.  We also have to build a new foundation for our future growth.  Today, our aging system of highways and byways, air routes and rail lines is hindering that growth.  Our highways are clogged with traffic, costing us $80 billion a year in lost productivity and wasted fuel.  Our airports are choked with increased loads.  Some of you flew down here and you know what that was about.  We're at the mercy of fluctuating gas prices all too often; we pump too many greenhouse gases into the air.
What we need, then, is a smart transportation system equal to the needs of the 21st century.  A system that reduces travel times and increases mobility.  A system that reduces congestion and boosts productivity.  A system that reduces destructive emissions and creates jobs.
What we're talking about is a vision for high-speed rail in America.  Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city.  No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes.  (Laughter.)  Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination.  Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America.
Now, all of you know this is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future.  It is now.  It is happening right now.  It's been happening for decades.  The problem is it's been happening elsewhere, not here. 
In France, high-speed rail has pulled regions from isolation, ignited growth, remade quiet towns into thriving tourist destinations.  In Spain, a high-speed line between Madrid and Seville is so successful that more people travel between those cities by rail than by car and airplane combined.  China, where service began just two years ago, may have more miles of high-speed rail service than any other country just five years from now.  And Japan, the nation that unveiled the first high-speed rail system, is already at work building the next:  a line that will connect Tokyo with Osaka at speeds of over 300 miles per hour.  So it's being done; it's just not being done here.
There's no reason why we can't do this.  This is America.  There's no reason why the future of travel should lie somewhere else beyond our borders.  Building a new system of high-speed rail in America will be faster, cheaper and easier than building more freeways or adding to an already overburdened aviation system –- and everybody stands to benefit.
And that's why today, with the help of Secretary LaHood and Vice President Biden, America's number one rail fan, I've been told -- (laughter) -- I'm announcing my administration's efforts to transform travel in America with an historic investment in high-speed rail. 
And our strategy has two parts: improving our existing rail lines to make current train service faster -- so Rob can, you know, shave a few hours over the course of a week -- but also identifying potential corridors for the creation of world-class high-speed rail.  To make this happen, we've already dedicated $8 billion of Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to this initiative, and I've requested another $5 billion over the next five years.
The Department of Transportation expects to begin awarding funds to ready projects before the end of this summer, well ahead of schedule.  And like all funding decisions under the Recovery Act, money will be distributed based on merit -- not on politics, not as favors, not for any other consideration --purely on merit.
Now, this plan is realistic.  And the first round of funding will focus on projects that can create jobs and benefits in the near term.  We're not talking about starting from scratch, we're talking about using existing infrastructure to increase speeds on some routes from 70 miles an hour to over 100 miles per hour -- so you're taking existing rail lines, you're upgrading them.  And many corridors merit even faster service, but this is the first step that is quickly achievable, and it will create jobs improving tracks, crossings, signal systems.
The next step is investing in high-speed rail that unleashes the economic potential of all our regions by shrinking distances within our regions.  There are at least 10 major corridors in the United States of 100 to 600 miles in length with the potential for successful high-speed rail systems.  And these areas have explored its potential impact on their long-term growth and competitiveness, and they've already presented sound plans.  I want to be clear:  No decision about where to allocate funds has yet been made, and any region can step up, present a plan and be considered.
The high-speed rail corridors we've identified so far would connect areas like the cities of the Pacific Northwest; southern and central Florida; the Gulf Coast to the Southeast to our nation's capital; the breadth of Pennsylvania and New York to the cities of New England; and something close to my heart, a central hub network that draws the cities of our industrial heartland closer to Chicago and one another.
Or California, where voters have already chosen to move forward with their own high-speed rail system, a system of new stations and 220 mile-per-hour trains that links big cities to inland towns; that alleviates crippling congestion on highways and at airports; and that makes travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles possible in two and a half hours.
And by making investments across the country, we'll lay a new foundation for our economic competitiveness and contribute to smart urban and rural growth.  We'll create highly-skilled construction and operating jobs that can't be outsourced, and generate demand for technology that gives a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs the opportunity to step up and lead the way in the 21st century.  We'll move to cleaner energy and a cleaner environment, we'll reduce our need for foreign oil by millions of barrels a year, and eliminate more than 6 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions annually –- equal to removing 1 million cars from our roads.
Now, I know that this vision has its critics.  There are those who say high-speed rail is a fantasy -- but its success around the world says otherwise.  I know Americans love their cars, and nobody is talking about replacing the automobile and our highways as critical parts of our transportation system.  We are upgrading those in the Recovery Package, as well.  But this is something that can be done, has been done, and can provide us enormous benefits.
Now, there are those who argue that if an investment doesn't directly benefit the people of their district, then it shouldn't be made.  Jim, you know some of those arguments.  (Laughter.)  But if we followed that rationale, we'd have no infrastructure at all. 
There are those who say, well, this investment is too small.  But this is just a first step.  We know that this is going to be a long-term project.  But us getting started now, us moving the process forward and getting people to imagine what's possible, and putting resources behind it so that people can start seeing examples of this around the country, that's going to spur all kinds of activity.
Now finally, there are those who say at a time of crisis, we shouldn't be pursuing such a strategy; we've got too many other things to do.  But our history teaches us a different lesson.
As Secretary LaHood just mentioned, President Lincoln was committed to a nation connected from East to West, even at the same time he was trying to hold North and South together.  He was in the middle of a Civil War.  While fighting raged on one side of the continent, tens of thousands of Americans from all walks of life came together on the other.  Dreamers and risk-takers willing to invest in America.  College-educated engineers and supervisors who learned leadership in war.  American workers and immigrants from all over the world.  Confederates and Yankees joined on the same side.
And eventually, those two sets of tracks met.  And with one final blow of a hammer, backed by years of hard work and decades of dreams, the way was laid for a nationwide economy.  A telegraph operator sent out a simple message to a waiting nation.  It just said, "DONE."  (Laughter.)  A newspaper proclaimed: "We are the youngest of peoples.  But we are teaching the world to march forward."
In retrospect, America's march forward seems inevitable.  But time and again, it's only made possible by generations that are willing to work and sacrifice and invest in plans to make tomorrow better than today.  That's the vision we can't afford to lose sight of.  That's the challenge that's fallen to this generation.  And with this strategy for America's transportation future, and our efforts across all fronts to lay a new foundation for our lasting prosperity, that is the challenge we will meet.
"Make no little plans."  That's what Daniel Burnham said in Chicago.  I believe that about America:  Make no little plans.  So let's get to work.  Thank you, everybody.  (Applause.)
9:50 A.M. EDT