PRESIDENT-ELECT Barack Obama chose Sen. Joe Biden as his running mate in large part because of Biden's expertise in foreign policy.
But just as important to the new administration may be Biden's expertise in another area that has been all-too-foreign to U.S. lawmakers.
We speak, of course, of public transit and its vital role in the kind of urbanism that is necessary for a real bailout of the American economy.
At the Governors' Association meeting here this week, Biden talked about the jobs that could be created by investing boldly in high-speed rail, noting how the summer Olympics provided an example: China's 200-mph trains "transporting people in a way that we don't even come close to being able to do."
Biden admitted to a "pro-rail" bias, developed over 30-some years taking Amtrak home from D.C. to Wilmington each night. To that, we say: "It's about time."
For decades now, the United States has been the victim of a "pro-highway" bias, and that has undermined the economic health of the nation as a whole - the small towns canonized by Biden's opponent Sarah Palin, as well as the big, bad metropolitan areas where most Americans live.
While other developed nations invested in high-speed-rail systems, Congress seemed to be doing its best to kill the not-so-fast system we had.
When gas prices peaked at $4 a gallon and more last spring, the bill for over-reliance on private transportation seemed to be coming due. Yet the price at the pump is only a fraction of the economic toll Americans pay in time wasted sitting in traffic, and in the ripple effects of increased sprawl and environmental degradation.
Even though the price of gas is plunging, at least for the moment, those costs remain. And, as the consensus grows for the need for a new "New Deal" investment to create good-paying jobs, Biden has it exactly right. "We should fast-track funding for the thousands of ready-to-go projects across the country that can quickly put people back to work and lay the foundation for long-term growth," he said.
The need is obvious. Ridership on SEPTA is up 14 percent over last year, and this for a system that is inadequate at best. Just think of the appeal of trains that go 220 mph, like the system planned for California, which will link all the state's major cities. A recently released business plan found that, by eliminating the need to build about 3,000 miles of new freeway plus five airport runways and 90 departure gates over the next two decades, California's high-speed-rail system would return three times its investment.
Last week, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican, joined with Democratic Sen. John Kerry to introduce the High Speed Rail for America Act of 2008, which would establish a central office to oversee the development of high-speed rail - that is, trains that exceed 110 mph - evaluate projects and provide funding in grants and bonds.
Investment in high-speed rail, including improving Amtrak in the Northeast Corridor, as well as a train that would go from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in two hours, would pay benefits now and later: It represents good-paying construction jobs, with their multiplying effects on the economy. And it has the potential to increase efficiency and decrease pollution and stress. The key is to go for it in a big way and not, as Gov. Rendell warned recently, to get "sticker shock."
The United States is already behind most other developed countries in developing high-speed rail. But an investment now can get us to the 21st century only slightly behind schedule. *