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VISION: Can a New High-Speed Rail System Save the American Dream?

America is looking for answers and solutions, and it may have found a good one in the form of an ambitious national high-speed rail network.

Crippled by economic depression and environmental catastrophe, the American dream is dead in the water. And with peak oil hot on its hyperconsuming heels, America is looking for solutions, and it may have found a good one in the form of an ambitious national high-speed rail network that would connect its metropoles and mid-size cities together in green solidarity. Better late than never.

"In the '20s, the American way of life looked just like Paris," U.S. High-Speed Rail Association (USHSRA) president Andy Kunz told AlterNet by phone in a wide-ranging interview. (Read the entire interview here.) "Everyone was living in big cities, riding street trains, no one had cars," he added. "But the oil and auto industries, working hand-in-hand with the government, converted the country away from that system. America wasn't born with the system we had now. So the American dream as we know it is somewhat of a myth.

From 1945 forward, we built a different America based on sprawl. But the days of plentiful cheap oil are over, so whether we want to change or not, we will be forced to. And America is going to have a tough time adjusting."

It will be much easier to adjust to the unimaginable economic and environmental crunches coming our way if we launched that system before peak oil smacks us upside the head as early as 2015, according to a recent report by the U.S. Joint Forces Command. And that's being generous; some would argue that we've been experiencing peak oil's birth pangs for over a decade. Right now, USHSRA's projected rail network envisions functional regional high-speed networks in California, the Pacific Northwest, Northeast and Great Lakes region by 2015, and then a complete national system by 2030. But there's no time to waste.

"If everyone sat down and took a good look at what the military's report means for our nation and its economy, they'd be in emergency mode, searching for a transportation infrastructure no longer dependent on oil," explained Kunz. "A national rail system powered by electricity, wind and solar is going to be the only thing that will make a massive difference. You could have transportation forever."

But before America can work its way toward that sustainable transportation future, it has to pull some thick-headed anachronists out of the past. After the 2010 midterm elections ushered new politicians into the volatile electoral mix, two incoming Republican governors -- Wisconsin's Scott Walker and Ohio's John Kasich, respectively -- killed their state's high-speed rail projects, and the millions of dollars and thousands of jobs that went along with them.

The same lame scenario is playing out right now in Florida, whose governor-elect Rick Scott is jeopardizing billions of stimulus dollars and much-needed jobs for no good reason, despite the fact that his state is the closest to making high-speed rail a sustainable reality.

"As a state, California is further along, in terms of having a comprehensive plan," Kunz said. "But when it comes to shovel-ready projects, Florida is further along. That project is basically ready to go out to bid. The hold-up is the new governor."

Despite these politicized setbacks, U.S. high-speed rail is attracting attention and potential investment from China and Japan, as well as multinational corporations looking to take an A-train to increased ridership and the profits it will bring. But until Florida gets its proverbial ass in gear, California is leaving everyone else in the dust.

The Case For California

With one progressive eye on alternative energy and another on rebooting the state's sagging employment, California's sprawling high-speed rail project is blazing hundreds of green miles to a post-peak oil future. But it's also taking dumb shots from compromised contrarians, while trying to connect the state's swollen metropoles, and some of its smaller cities, in hopes of providing Californians a more productive and less toxic transportation atmosphere.

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