Sunday, August 3, 2008

Will Obama make Maglev a Priority?

Forget the war. Forget the credit crisis. What is the one issue that could turn me- a longstanding Republican- into an Obama fan? It's called MAGLEV, and it has the potential to be the greatest presidential legacy piece since Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System (a product of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956).

Created from federal funds, the Interstate Highway System remains the largest public works project in history. It took 35 years to complete, and cost over $400 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars, but the rewards have been endless. In fact, the Interstate network has been a major factor in contributing to America's prosperity over the last fifty years- by facilitating the flow of private and commercial transportation across our country. Widely heralded as the best investment the U.S. government has ever made, the U.S. Interstate System has "returned more than $6 in economic productivity for each $1 it cost." Beyond economic benefits, the system also provides security by serving as a route for rapid military deployment and emergency evacuations (most notably during hurricanes).

But the Interstate System is growing old. And although it will remain the backbone of transportation in America for decades to come, we need another system- a faster system, that will meet the demands of life in the 21st century. The answer is simple, yet immensely promising: maglev.
Maglev is the common abbreviation for "magnetic levitation", generally referring to train systems that use magnetism that allow cars to "hover" above a track. Riding on a cushion of air, these maglev trains can easily reach speeds between 200 and 300 mph. Maglev trains are also quiet, and run off electricity, eliminating noise and environmental pollution.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 70 percent of the United States' oil consumption is used for transportation. As mentioned above, maglevs run on electricity, and less than 2 percent of electricity in the United States is generated from petroleum. By transforming the way we travel, we can greatly reduce our dependence on foreign oil, eliminate the pollution that is currently released by millions of internal combusion engines, and focus on alternative energy for electric power generation.

Maglev technology is intact, and several trains are already commercially operating in other countries. A remarkable example is the IOS (Initial Operating Segment) demonstration line in Shanghai, China, which reaches a maximum operating velocity of 268 mph. Many more projects are coming online in China as well, proving to the world that maglev is here to stay. It is also important to note that even though maglev is the technology of choice, other forms of high speed rail have existed for years around the globe. The famous Shinkansen trains in Japan, and TGV trains in France regularly travel at speeds of 186 mph.

A maglev system spanning the United States and mirroring the old Interstate Highway System looks extremely attractive. The top three reasons being:

1. Such a system can be expected to pay for itself many times over, creating $US billions (if not trillions) in economic benefit.

2. A maglev network can reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

3. A maglev system can efficiently connect America's major cities at super-high speeds.

One can only imagine the beauty of traveling between U.S. cities by maglev, at speeds currently only known to aircraft in our country. And, of course, no traffic jams. One questions why we don't already have maglev and high speed rail. Has America missed the boat?
Such a system as described above, spanning the country from coast to coast will be very expensive, and will require full government support. Maglev needs a champion- a president who is willing to trade a little risk for a great reward. A national maglev transportation network, if passed through Congress, would undoubtedly be a legacy item. Will Obama step up? It's certainly enough to make me change sides.

-Elliott H.

© Copyright 2008 by Elliott Hartsfield.

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