Can High-Speed Rail Succeed in America?

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Ken Cedeno / Corbis

Passengers exit an Amtrak Acela at Union Station in Washington

Environmentalists came away from President Obama's first State of the Union address on Wednesday with mixed feelings. Yes, the President focused on the importance of investment in clean energy and energy efficiency as the best way to sustainably grow America's moribund economy, and he mentioned clean coal, biofuels and nuclear power (though not renewable energy), and he talked up the need to pass a "comprehensive energy and climate bill." But notably, he said nothing about putting a price on carbon — which is considered by most greens to be the key move to reduce global carbon emissions.

There was one part of the speech, however, that no green could fault: Obama's call for the creation of a high-speed rail system as a way to generate green jobs, enhance economic productivity and reduce carbon emissions. On Thursday, Jan. 28, the White House announced the awarding of $8 billion in stimulus funding to kick-start high-speed-rail projects and improve service in 13 corridors across the country. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Tampa, Fla., to announce the projects, which include the construction of an 84-mile high-speed track from Tampa to Orlando.

"We want to start looking deep into the 21st century and say to ourselves, There's no reason why other countries can build high-speed rail lines and we can't," Obama told a crowd in a University of Tampa arena. "Right here in Tampa, we're building the future."

That's a nice sentiment, but America's antiquated rail system will have to advance a long way just to make it to the present, let alone the future. U.S. intercity railroads are a laughingstock compared with those in most other developed nations — and, increasingly, even those in developing nations like China, which is investing more than $300 billion to build more than 16,000 miles of high-speed track by 2020.

Today you can travel the 250 miles from Paris to Lyon on the high-speed TGV in two hours. Covering a similar distance from Philadelphia to Boston takes some five hours, and that's on an Amtrak Acela train, the closest thing the U.S. has to high-speed rail. "Every other major industrialized nation has recognized that high-speed rail is key to economic growth and mobility," says Petra Todorovich, director of the America 2050 program at the Regional Planning Association. "It's time for America to realize that as well."

When the White House announced last spring that it would allocate billions of stimulus dollars to high-speed-rail projects, states submitted 45 applications for more than $50 billion in aid. In the end, the Federal Railroad Administration decided to distribute $8 billion in funding to 31 states, with the biggest single grants going to California ($2.3 billion) and Florida ($1.3 billion).

But whatever the public's vision of a sparkling new 150-m.p.h. bullet train like those in Japan and Europe, the reality is that not all, or even most, of the stimulus money will go toward creating entirely new rail service. Instead, much of the initial funding will be spent improving and speeding up existing service.

In Florida, however, the money will in fact help build a new stretch of track between Tampa and Orlando, which will allow trains to travel at speeds up to 168 m.p.h. It is the first leg of an intercity corridor that is expected to continue southward to Miami.

Demographically, Florida is an ideal state in which to launch the rail projects. Together, the metro areas of Tampa and Orlando are a major economic unit, home to more than 3.4 million people and close enough on the map to make high-speed rail competitive with air and auto travel. The region is also a tourist hub, which makes it likely that a Tampa-Orlando rail line will be well-used by Americans from around the country. That makes it a smart advertisement for other high-speed-rail projects back in their home regions.

Florida's project is also an optimal test case, having already been approved by the state and relatively free of red tape. The line is set to open by 2015, the environmental-impact assessment has already been done, and the state owns more than 90% of the route's right of way. That should reduce the property struggles and legal challenges that have slowed other new rail projects. "Florida is relatively cheap compared to other projects," says Todorovich. "This is the sort of project they can use to build support on a national basis. You need a success."

Still, the initial round of $8 billion — which Biden referred to as "seed money" during his remarks in Tampa — is just a tiny percentage of what it would cost to significantly overhaul the country's rail system. And there are concerns that by spreading the funds to so many different projects in so many different states, it won't be possible to make a real difference in any one place, as Mark Reutter wrote in a new report for the Progressive Policy Institute. It doesn't help that the one region that could most obviously benefit from truly high-speed rail — the Boston-to-Washington corridor — received a mere $112 million in funding, in part because building new track in the congested area would be prohibitively expensive and politically challenging.

Nevertheless, high-speed rail is an idea whose time has come — at least for environmentalists. According to Environment America, high-speed rail uses a third less energy per mile than auto or air travel, and a nationwide system could reduce oil use by 125 million bbl. a year. In addition, high-speed rail represents the kind of long-term infrastructure investment that will pay back for decades, just as the interstate highway system of the 1950s has. "This is a down payment on a truly national program," said Biden, who has logged more than 7,900 round trips of his own on Amtrak. "It will change the way we travel and change the way we work and live." Greens will be happy to see that.

Follow Bryan Walsh on Twitter @bryanrwalsh.