America has always been about mobility, but you would hardly know it from how inconvenient traveling has become. Traffic jams clog roads and congestion strains airports with security checks and planes canceled or delayed.
As for rail travel, which could ease these burdens, it has for too long been the poor relation of the transportation triumvirate. Amtrak shares track with freight trains and its service is slow and infrequent - as cities like Pittsburgh know. Only in the Northeast Corridor does Amtrak run its high-speed Acela trains.
But last week the signal clearly changed. Last Thursday, President Barack Obama made a major pitch for high-speed passenger trains, committing $13 billion to the task. Congress had already allocated $8 billion for high-speed rail in the economic stimulus passed earlier this year, and Mr. Obama is pushing for another $1 billion for at least the next five years.
The administration wants to spend this money on 10 major corridors of 100 miles to 600 miles with the potential for successful high-speed rail systems. The good news is that a Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg-to-Philadelphia route is one.
This nation should support modernizing rail travel for many reasons, including reducing congestion on the roads and lowering dependence on foreign oil, but for Pittsburgh there's another - lessening the city's isolation from Harrisburg. Commercial airlines no longer fly to the state capital; taxpayers must either drive over the Alleghenies or take a bus. Only one Amtrak train a day makes its slow way to Harrisburg.
The trouble is that building high-speed rail links is expensive. While $13 billion seems a lot, it would really be just a down payment. Could this be the little engine that could?
Mr. Obama spoke directly to this concern: "There are those who say, well, this investment is too small. But this is just a first step. We know that this is going to be a long-term project." Getting started now, he said, would get people to imagine what's possible, and "spur all kinds of activity."
Other countries have embraced high-speed rail with great success - countries such as France, Spain, China and Japan. As Mr. Obama said, "There's no reason why the future of travel should lie somewhere else beyond our borders."
In rediscovering railroads, the country can shrink the continent once more while growing the economy anew. And it can make mobility in America convenient again.