In addition to having represented Illinois in Congress, President Obama and I have in common a fondness for one our state's greatest heroes, Abraham Lincoln. In particular, the President likes to quote notes from Lincoln in 1854 when he wrote, “The legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, by themselves.”
Lincoln went on to list some of these items, including “Making and maintaining roads, bridges, and the like..."
Yes, our 16th President knew that transportation must be a high priority for a growing nation. In fact, Lincoln even patented an invention--the only President thus far to do so--that would help maritime vessels free themselves upon running aground.
Lincoln's leadership in preserving the Union often overshadows the important fact that he chartered the transcontinental railroad that proved so vital to our nation's economic growth. He had a vision for American rail that would connect our nation from the sunshine and surf of California to what is now the Northeast Corridor.
That vision was not shared by everyone. From the first mention, in 1832, of a possible line from New York to Oregon, the critics dismissed the transcontinental railroad as the fantasies of overheated imaginations. At that time, America had a grand total of 229 miles of track, and the prospect of laying 3,000 miles of track seemed impossible. Getting Congress to agree to finance such an immense undertaking was an uphill fight; the technology to build the line didn't even exist; and much of the territory the railroad would traverse was considered of no economic potential.
But In 1862, Lincoln signed into existence the product of that initial vision, which eventually brought America thousands of new towns along the corridor, agricultural domination that we have sustained for more than 150 years, and a strong sense of national unity.
President Obama’s vision for High Speed Rail is an extension of that legacy. It offers benefits very similar to those of the original transcontinental rail: economic development along the corridors, economic competitiveness; and accessible connections among major cities and the communities between them.
And it faces similar opposition from the naysayers who doubt this nation's ability to achieve the kind of global competitiveness we need to continue thriving.
The reality is that high speed passenger rail is critical to continue improving the lives of our next generation. Squeezed between our burgeoning population and our limited road and airport capacity, it's no longer a question of if America will develop such a 21st century system. It is only a question of whether we can realize this vision in time.
President Obama and I think we can.
Several projects are already underway. Just last week, we celebrated the advent of 110 mph service between Portage, Indiana, and Kalamazoo, Michigan, along the Chicago to Detroit line – marking the first high speed rail service in the country outside of the Northeast Corridor.
But there's still a lot of work to do. We need Congress to pass the high speed rail provisions of President Obama's budget. This train is leaving the station, and it's time for Congress to get on board.