A high-speed future for Florida, U.S.

Without a champion in President Dwight Eisenhower, America might never have built the Interstate highway system. And even though today some parts of the system sometimes look more like a mall parking lot on Christmas Eve, where would we be without the 46,876 miles of super highway?

Eisenhower’s idea for the Interstate system didn’t come without some skepticism from lawmakers. He first brought the issue to Congress in 1954, where he was only able to pass what he called “one effective forward step.” He pushed ahead with his idea, but the Eisenhower-backed legislation calling for an Interstate highway with mostly federal funding was defeated.

He returned in his 1956 State of the Union address to renew his call for the federal highway system. Congress tried again to pass a highway bill and this time, the president was successful. On June 29, 1956, lying in a hospital bed with an intestinal ailment, Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act.

Fast forward from the 1950s to January 2010.

The day after his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama traveled to Florida to announce what he deemed major economic news. Indeed, he officially became a champion of a high-speed rail system that may one day link cities across the U.S.

Last spring, Obama had characterized America’s rail system, when compared with the rest of the world’s, as a caboose. That’s why, he said back then, that the U.S. needed to develop high-speed passenger rail lines in at least 10 regions, including Florida.

The initial investment was made during the January trip to Tampa, where the president announced the federal government was awarding $8 billion in economic recovery money to a number of states for developing the national high-speed rail network.

My state, Florida, is receiving a $1.25 billion down payment on a bullet train that is intended to tie Tampa to Orlando and then Orlando to Miami. Of course, this comes as great news; and, as I’ve said, it could be one of the biggest boosts to Florida’s economy since Disney and the Interstate system.

And it’s not just Florida that stands to benefit. Nationwide, tens of thousands of jobs are expected to be created or saved in areas such as track-laying, manufacturing, planning and engineering, and rail maintenance and operations. Besides my state, there are a dozen new high-speed rail corridors across the country, with a total of 31 states receiving investments.

In the 1950s, we had Eisenhower’s vision of a connected America. And now we have a vision to create a faster, cheaper, less-congested transportation future for all of us.

When introducing this new transportation system, the president said, “There’s no reason why we can’t do this. This is America.”

The bullet train, which I and former Sen. Bob Graham and others backed in Florida with seed money years ago, has finally found a champion for a nationwide system.

Nelson is a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.