Shanghaiing America's Heartland

This is what they're building in Shanghai, a city that, according to Wikipedia, is widely regarded as the citadel of China's modern economy.

It's the world's first high speed maglev train, and it reaches 200 mph in 2 minutes. The thing topped out at 311 mph in 2003 test runs. And the max speed during normal operation is a brisk 268 mph.

That means, if we were building this sort of advanced transportation technology in the United States, you could get from Detroit to Chicago in just over one hour. It's at least a 4-hour car ride if you're hauling the mail down I-94.

Chicago to Minneapolis, nearly a 7-hour drive, would take less than 2 hours. Cleveland to Pittsburgh? Be there in 30 minutes. No gas fillups, no traffic jams, no exorbitant downtown parking fees.

But we're years - perhaps decades - away from building this sort of future-oriented infrastructure in America, even as a host of economic, environmental, and demographic trends now point to aggressive investment in modern mass transit solutions. Pennsylvania, Baltimore, and California are studying the idea. Yet, under the current transportation investment approach, we can't even keep Amtrak on time and out of the red.

So it wasn't surprising to hear John Austin, director of the Brookings Institution's Great Lakes Economic Inititiative, on public radio yesterday urging the presidential candidates to focus on a new generation of domestic public investment. It's essential, Austin suggested, to maintaining and enhancing the region's - and the nation's - competitive advantage in the global marketplace.

"It's embarassing, as the Europeans and the Chinese are building world-class infrastructure, like a tunnel linking France and England, we still have leaky and dated infrastructure around what is the largest trading point on earth."