There's no reason the United States can't once again lead the world in transportation innovation, except for the political opposition that forces us further behind countries like China.
China began service Wednesday morning on the world's longest high-speed rail line, covering a distance in eight hours that is about equal to that from New York to Key West, Florida, or from London across Europe to Belgrade.
Bullet trains traveling 300 kilometers an hour, or 186 miles an hour, began regular service between Beijing and Guangzhou, the main metropolis in southeastern China. Older trains still in service on a parallel rail line take 21 hours; Amtrak trains from New York to Miami, a shorter distance, still take nearly 30 hours.
Completion of the Beijing-Guangzhou route is the latest sign that China has resumed rapid construction on one of the world's largest and most ambitious infrastructure projects, a network of four north-south routes and four east-west routes that span the country.
Keep in mind, this isn't just about bragging rights. China has invested heavily in transportation infrastructure, including this remarkable network of high-speed trains, and the result has greatly benefited the nation's economy and created "as many as 100,000" jobs.
China has also, incidentally, helped integrate regional economies, linking cities and provinces in new and efficient ways, which in turn is expected to strengthen China's manufacturing and exporting centers.
And then there's the U.S., where the Obama administration has repeatedly argued that high-speed rail boosts economic development, creates jobs, fosters innovation, relieves crowded roads, and even reduces emissions, and where Republicans say investing in infrastructure costs money -- and spending is, you know, bad.
Remember, GOP opposition to similar projects is so strong that in some instances, we've seen Republican governors -- including Florida's Rick Scott and Wisconsin's Scott Walker -- turn down high-speed-rail funds from Washington, just on principle, regardless of the economic benefits to their state.
What's more, while our international rivals take the lead in transportation innovation -- it's easy to win a race when your competitor stops trying -- we're still struggling to address cracks in our outdated infrastructure.
There are thousands of faltering sewage plants like these across the country, staffed by operators who dread rainy days. Civil engineers in every state are monitoring ominous cracks in roads and bridges that carry freight and school buses. And millions of transit commuters are awaiting new equipment and long-deferred maintenance on systems that are reliable only when the sun is shining.
The need for investment in public works, never more urgent, has become a casualty of Washington's ideological wars. Republicans were once reliable partners in this kind of necessary spending. But since President Obama spent about 12 percent of the 2009 stimulus on transportation, energy and other infrastructure programs, Republicans have made it a policy to demonize these kinds of investments.
When the president asked recently for a modest $50 billion for transportation improvements in the "fiscal cliff" talks, Republicans literally laughed out loud. There will be no stimulus in any deal, said Representative Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, the incoming chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Obviously the economy needs another boost, in part because the austerity being demanded by Republicans is likely to slow down growth. Big government construction projects put people to work, and those new jobs have enormous ripple effects -- $1.44 in benefits for every government dollar spent on public works. An infrastructure bank for energy and water projects, started with $10 billion in government seed money, could leverage hundreds of billions in private investments.
But the biggest reason to spend money on these projects is that they are desperately needed in every city and state.
For now, and for reasons that only make sense to the right, Republicans refuse to even consider these public investments.