The vice president has been commuting on the train between Washington, D.C., and Wilmington, Del., for more than 35 years. The president is envious of Europe's speedy railways. They stood together today to announce their plans to revolutionize U.S. train travel.
"There's no reason why the future of travel should lie somewhere else, beyond our borders," President Obama said today in laying out the new transportation plans. "Building a new system of high-speed rail in America will be faster, cheaper and easier than building more freeways or adding to an already over-burdened aviation system, and everybody stands to benefit."
Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood today said the plan will "jumpstart a new era in American train travel" and called the investment in train travel an environmental "game changer."
The money needed for the president's plans begin with an $8 billion "down payment" from the stimulus bill, to be followed, he hopes, by $1 billion per year for five years, requested in the federal budget to accelerate the program.
First on the to-do list is upgrading railways like the one that carries travelers between Washington and Boston on America's only high-speed train, Amtrak's Acela. Next up would be creating new high-speed corridors in places like California, the Pacific Northwest and the Southeast.
The Federal Rail Administration intends to start divvying up grant money for states in late summer.
Travelers like Victoria Cassano, who rides the rails twice a week between her job in Washington and her home in New York, is on board with the president's plan.
"I think we should be funding these types of systems," Cassano told ABC News last week. "This is a great way to travel."
But others say there are miles to go. Critics say the administration's plans are unrealistic and a waste of money, especially given that American cities are, in their eyes, separated by distances that are not conducive to this kind of travel.
It's a huge investment that Daniel Mitchell, senior fellow at the CATO Institute, a libertarian think-tank, called "just ludicrous," given the tanking economy.
"If California voters want to throw money down a rat hole for high-speed rail, then let them," Mitchell said. "At least that is not going to cost the taxpayers of Minnesota and South Carolina any money.
"You might as well have the government invest in nuclear-powered bicycles," Mitchell added. "That's probably the only thing I could imagine that would be more of a waste of money than inter-city rail."
Since 1980, every state effort in the United States to build high-speed rail has failed. Budget-battered California has proposed a 220-miles-per-hour bullet train that would link San Francisco to Los Angeles in two-and-a-half hours -- with a price tag of $45 billion.
America is miles behind. In Japan, the bullet train can wisk passengers from one city to the next at nearly 200 miles an hour. It's the same on France's TGV train, where passengers can get from Paris to Lyon in a little less than two hours. A dozen countries around the world enjoy high-speed rail, but America is not one of them.
"I know that this vision has its critics," Obama said today. "There's those who say high-speed rail is a fantasy. But its success around the world says otherwise."
And on his recent trip to Europe, Obama himself seemed envious.