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High-speed rail an exciting return to big thinking on US infrastructure

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Wade Vandervort

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks during Brightline West’s groundbreaking ceremony Monday, April 22, 2024.

It was a good week for anyone who dreams about the power of technology to transform our lives and society for the better, as well as to unlock the mysteries of the cosmos.

The week began with a groundbreaking for the Brightline West high-speed rail transit system. Nearly 20 years after the project’s inception and with the assistance of $3 billion in federal funding from the Biden administration, a high-speed rail connecting Las Vegas to Southern California is finally moving from dream to reality.

The Brightline’s 200 mph top speed will cut travel time between Las Vegas and Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., by as much as 50% compared with an automobile. And it will do so without the frustrating traffic jams that afflict drivers.

Perhaps more importantly, it will be the first true high-speed passenger rail line in the United States, even though high-speed rail is common elsewhere in the world. The train is expected to generate thousands of good-paying jobs, cut carbon emissions in Las Vegas and the Mojave and, we hope, inspire a new generation of Americans to dream about the power of infrastructure to transform American society.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg participated in the ceremony in Las Vegas and shared his and President Joe Biden’s vision for a network of modern interconnected high-speed rail lines that would rival those of Europe and Japan.

For all those car owners dreaming of the day their vehicles will drive for them while they sit back to read, play cards, eat or sightsee out the window, we must point out that trains already offer that to passengers. Want full self-driving? Try a train. Or a bus. Or any mass transit.

High-speed rail is a noble goal that uses modern technology for the benefit of all Americans. It is worthy of celebration and investment, and we hope it spurs conversations moving forward about investments needed to keep America at the cutting edge of technological advancement both in our homes and in our national infrastructure.

Building infrastructure has always been a winning bet for America.

It was nearly a century ago, in 1928, when more than 75% of Congress voted to pass the Boulder Canyon Dam Act, which was then signed by President Calvin Coolidge. The act authorized the construction of what is now known as the Hoover Dam. It was, at the time, the most expensive public works project in the history of the United States.

Despite its cost, the Hoover Dam has led to unprecedented growth and prosperity in the West. Cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles could not exist in their current form without the benefits of a stable electrical grid, reserves of water for managing short-term drought and the absence of what used to be regular catastrophic flooding.

Twenty years after the completion of the dam, in 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower urged Congress to support an even more ambitious project: the U.S. interstate highway system. It cost hundreds of billions of dollars in modern money, but most Americans could not imagine our lives today without the network of highways connecting cities and regions across the country.

Then, in 1961, while the interstate system was still being built, President John F. Kennedy called on America to make yet another great investment in our future by funding a literal moonshot. Although Kennedy did not live to see the moment Neil Armstrong took one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind, Kennedy’s vision for the future lives on in space exploration programs such as the 47-year-old Voyager mission, which also gave us reason to celebrate this week.

After six months of receiving garbled communications from the Voyager 1 spacecraft, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory finally received an intelligible message and are optimistic that a return to normal operations is near.

Launched in 1977 to study Jupiter and Saturn along with a twin, Voyager 2, the Voyager spacecraft are marvels of engineering, ingenuity and an insatiable desire to learn about our place in the universe.

For decades and relying on what today feels like primitive American technology, the Voyagers have traveled farther into deep space than any other man-made object. Voyager 1 left our solar system (traveling beyond the bubble of solar wind generated by our sun) in August of 2012, and is currently 15 billion miles away from Earth. The Voyager spacecraft were never meant to survive longer than their core mission and yet the extraordinary American scientists and engineers designed marvels that enjoy a miraculous lifespan.

Messages sent to the interstellar spacecraft travel at the speed of light: more than 670 million miles per hour. Despite the incredible speed, it still takes a message from Earth 22.5 hours to reach Voyager 1. Thus, it took months to send various messages to the spacecraft and await a response in order to diagnose the malfunction and to instruct Voyager’s computers to reprogram itself to work around a faulty computer chip.

With a return to normal operations, we can only imagine what insights the Voyager spacecraft will provide moving forward.

Voyager 1 was launched almost 50 years after the authorization of Hoover Dam and almost 50 years before this week’s Brightline West groundbreaking. Yet all three projects represent the realization of big dreams that require big investments, big risks and big opportunities to shape the future of our nation and even humanity. 

One of the United States’ many strengths has been the public’s willingness to dream big and invest heavily in our future. Since the nation’s founding, Americans have shown an insatiable hunger for new ideas, ambitions and innovation.

And yet, in recent decades our leaders have not pressed forward on bold infrastructure goals even though other nations — and our rivals — invest heavily in improving infrastructure because they recognize the advantages it brings.

By making historic investments in projects like Brightline, as well as in infrastructure like green energy and high-tech manufacturing, President Joe Biden has opened the doors for big projects and big dreams once again. We hope Brightline is just the beginning.

Who knows, perhaps in 60 years, passengers traveling on America’s interconnected network of high-speed trains will look back on this week’s Brightline groundbreaking with the same reverence as the Hoover Dam, the interstate highway system, the moon landing or the Voyager missions.

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