The promise of high-speed rail was a big topic of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce's annual "State of the Region" meeting Tuesday.
But Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made another point early and often: If Congress passed a transportation funding bill, it would create jobs.
It's a message he has been repeating at speeches and appearances across the nation since the Obama administration released a $550 billion, six-year plan to pay for various transportation-related infrastructure projects on Labor Day last year.
"A transportation bill will become a jobs bill," LaHood said during a speech at the Chase Center on the Wilmington riverfront.
During his 14 years as a Republican U.S. representative from Illinois, LaHood said, Congress passed two transportation bills. The current Congress is overdue in passing another. "There's a big, bold plan out there. If you don't like it, pass something else," he said.
Acknowledging the pushback from congressional Republicans to cut federal spending and debt, LaHood said the nation still must invest in priorities, such as infrastructure, even as it pays down debt.
"We need to fund our transportation priorities so Americans can go back to work," he said to applause from the businesspeople in the audience.
LaHood also called for support of the administration's plans to develop high-speed rail systems around the nation. True 200-plus m.p.h. train service on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor would cost about $117 billion and take about 30 years to finish.
In the short run, though, Amtrak is concentrating on boosting speeds between Philadelphia and New York to 160 m.p.h., from 135 m.p.h. Earlier this month, federal officials awarded $795 million to Amtrak after Florida rejected $2 billion in federal funds to develop high-speed rail there.
Albrecht Engel, vice president of Amtrak's High Speed Rail Division, which was created in March 2010, listed some of the constraints to quicker service on the Northeast Corridor. Some bridges are more than 100 years old.
And, he said, the current U.S. investment in infrastructure at 1 percent of gross domestic product greatly lags industrial Europe (5 percent of GDP) and fast-growing China (9 percent of GDP).
Staying that course puts high-speed rail on a slow train to nowhere.