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Column: A New New Deal? Try Expanding Train System

This story was written by Paul Payer, Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Assuming presidency during the height of the Great Depression and facing record unemployment, Franklin Delano Roosevelt led the country out of economic peril through an expansive economic policy focused on putting Americans back to work.

Seventy-five years later, Americans are once again faced with a challenge which threatens the future of our economic prosperity. Unemployment has exploded in the past year, reaching a rate of 6.7 percent following a month of November in which 533,000 Americans lost their jobs, a 34-year high.

Last week, The National Bureau of Economic Research confirmed what was already painstakingly obvious to the 1.9 million Americans who have lost their jobs in 2008: the economy is in a recession.

As congress continues to iron out the details of a bailout deal for the American automotive industry, President-elect Barack Obama has begun to outline his plan for economic recovery.

As Obama appointed members to his Cabinet, the media fawned over the notion of Obama selecting "a team of rivals," a concept suggested by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to describe Abraham Lincoln's decision to staff his cabinet with individuals of conflicting ideology and perspectives. The comparison is legitimate, but perhaps Obama should also consider following the direction of another presidential icon, FDR.

So far, it seems as if Obama has taken some advice from the book of FDR. In his recent weekly address to the nation, Obama mentions the need to embark upon a public works effort unprecedented since the development of the interstate highway system in the 1950s.

Obama identifies five major areas for improvement; update schools to meet 21 century needs, repair the national infrastructure of roads and bridges, invest in alternative energy, expand broadband Internet access and improve medical recordkeeping by switching to an electronic record system.

Obama notes that these tasks will not only improve infrastructure and cut down on operating costs, but will create new jobs for an American workforce desperately in need of gainful employment.

For example, take Obama's plan to invest in alternative energy. One project Obama mentions would be to retrofit all federal buildings with green technology. This would not only spur growth in the alternative energy industry, but would cut down on annual operational costs for the buildings by saving on energy expenses and create thousands of American jobs.

Obama's new direction is certainly encouraging and necessary to America's economic recovery, but his plan ignores a valuable opportunity to create jobs, further America's energy independence and catch up to the rest of the world in terms of transportation and technology.

That opportunity is Amtrak.

The public transportation system in America is, simply, abysmal. Transportation systems in Europe and other first world countries provide communities with affordable, sensible and ecologically viable means of transportation.

An expansion of America's public transportation system would not only create hundreds of thousands of jobs, but it would restore the world's respect for American ingenuity and invention. High speed trains have been in development across Europe and Asia, including in China, where magnetic powered trains connect to Shanghai at speeds over 220 m.p.h.

This need not even be an issue of cutting edge technology. Comprehensive public transportation systems existed in the 1960s before the widespread advent of the automobile (including the buyout and subsequent dismantling of rail companies and infrastructure by the automotive industry). Furthermore, several mass transit systems located in the nation's major metropolita cities indicate that efficient public transportation is possible.

At one point, it seemed as if public transportation had finally reached a level of public interest and concern as gas prices spiraled to over $4 a gallon. Amtrak and metropolitan transportation systems across the country enjoyed record ridership last summer as commuters sought relief from the pump.

The rapid decline in the price of oil resulting from decreased demand in a weakened economy has quelled some of those motives. But interest will rise once again as the market recovers and demand increases, once again allowing OPEC to continue their game of cat and mouse with oil prices.

There is no question that the United States must reform and expand its public transportation system. The current method of transportation in this country relies on an energy source of an impermanent nature and prone to extreme price volatility.

Eventually the price of gasoline or the simple absence of it will require alternative means of transportation. No amount of new roads or "Big Dig" projects can address the future traffic congestion caused by a national population expected to double by 2050.

There is no better time for this project than right now. A massive public transportation undertaking would have an effect similar to that of FDR's New Deal programs which built a country and put an economy back to work. President-elect Barack Obama made a promise of change on election night to the American people, now it's time for him to follow through on the deal.

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