Charlemagne's column in the January 29 Economist reminded me of my pet (pipe dream?) public works project. The column describes how that advent of cheap air travel in the European Union has encouraged people to travel between countries almost on whim. The author interviewed passengers at Stansted Airport (near London) who had paid $95 or less for their tickets. "What these airlines do is let you live in two countries at once," said a Scottish student who was going to Spain to visit her boyfriend. On a more macro level, the author said that "The surge in British holidaymakers buying houses in France is closely linked to the rise of low-cost airlines. And it is not just travellers who feel the benefits. Entire regional economies have felt the impact. The city of Carcassonne in south-west France reckons that the 235,000 passengers who arrive every year on low-cost airlines have created over $360 million of extra economic activity."
Our mental "distance map" of the places we go is based not just on physical distance but on what it costs and how long it takes to go there. And air travel is cheap: the article mentions the amazement of some American backpackers at Stansted whose air tickets from Stansted to Barcelona were no more expensive than their train tickets from London to Stansted.
This is not to say that Portland should try to become a discount air hub and attract European tourists. We have no Carcassonnes to offer them. But for about $2 to $3 billion we can shrink time and cost in a different way, which is to build high-speed rail between Portland and Seattle, eventually extensible to Eugene on the south and Vancouver, BC on the north.
Rail service is slow now . . .