As Barack Obama finally announces his vice-presidential pick, Delaware Senator Joe Biden, there's been a lot of discussion about how he reflects or complements or even detracts from what Barack Obama stands for. Most of those discussions focus on the war in Iraq, domestic economic policy, the nebulous media fiction of "gravitas," etc. But there's a key area where Biden and Obama are not just in agreement, but have been outspoken leaders: trains, and high speed rail in particular.
Obama has already made a name for himself as a high speed rail advocate, as we've previously discussed at this blog. Obama now adds to his ticket one of the most committed supporters of Amtrak and a high speed rail proponent in Joe Biden - or as Atrios calls him, Vice President of SUPERTRAIN.
Biden is a regular Amtrak rider in order to stay connected to his family:
Biden vowed to remain a fixture in his sons' lives. Valerie became their surrogate mother, and Biden began the daily commute from Wilmington to Washington that made him an Amtrak champion for life. Even after Biden met and married his second wife, Jill, five years later, he didn't surrender the back-breaking schedule. "Kids keep a thought in their heads for 12 hours," he says at one campaign stop. "They aren't gonna keep it for 24 hours."
Most of his trips are on the United States' closest thing to a high speed train, the Acela, which he helped create. Biden has been long supported high speed rail, as shown by these comments from 2001:
A lead author of the legislation, Senator Joseph Biden, Jr. (DE) said, "Every advanced economy in the world invests more than the United States in high-speed inter-city service. We like to think of ourselves as the most advanced country in the world, and I believe we are, but for years we have nickel-and-dimed passenger rail service in this country."
Biden explained the broad support for the legislation, stating, "We have the support of the many members all across the country because our country's transportation system is already stretched to the breaking point."
Comments from a 2007 town hall when Biden was still a Democratic presidential show the breadth of Biden's HSR vision:
“I commute 250 miles a day on high-speed rail,” Biden said. “I'm Mr. Amtrak.”
Biden proposes an interstate high-speed rail service similar to the interstate highway system.
“One mile of one lane of I-80 costs $22 million,” Biden said. “One mile of I-95 (on the East Coast) holds more traffic and costs $41 million.” By contrast, “One mile of high-speed rail costs $1 million.
“You can fit more people on a rail car and you'll be taking 50 automobiles off the road. Rail uses 1/50th of the cost (of a car) in terms of energy consumption.”
Biden said the reason why railroads haven't been used more in the past is because of special interest groups, most notably the airline industry. “They get $350 million a year to go where no one wants to go,” Biden said, qualifying that by saying that there is not enough business to support a commercial flight. He said people don't like the idea of subsidizing railroads, yet the airline industry gets subsidies to fly to sparse locations.
Or this, also from an Iowa town hall in 2007:
You are looking at Mr. Transportation,” he said in response to a question about using an electrified rail system like Europe’s. “I am the reason Amtrak keeps moving.”...
“Why do you think businesses are leaving (the U.S.)?” he said. “We need a good infrastructure, which would benefit economic development.”
Whether you plan to vote for the Obama-Biden ticket or not, it's clear that they do have the possibility to dramatically raise the profile of high speed rail in America. They also "get" high speed rail and why it is so fundamentally important to the future of this country. I can't imagine a better boost for our own HSR plan than to hear one of them mention it in a debate or a nationwide TV ad.
Picking Biden also has some political drawbacks. If the ticket is successful in November, one of Amtrak's and HSR's most important backers will leave the US Senate for the Executive Branch. It's possible that Biden could do for Obama what Lyndon B. Johnson did for John F. Kennedy, and use his masterful knowledge of the Senate to be the president's de facto Senate lobbyist and "fixer." Unfortunately it's also possible that Biden won't be able to play as strong a role for high speed rail as he might have while still a sitting US senator.
Despite that potential problem, the Obama-Biden ticket is still much better for high speed rail advocates than the alternative. John McCain is an noted Amtrak hater and has shown little love for HSR. It's hard to envision a McCain Administration accepting a large budget appropriation from Congress for California's HSR project, and that might set things back five years.
Not having Biden in the Senate to advocate for HSR would be unfortunate, but having McCain in the White House to block it would be far worse.