Can High-Speed Rail Get on Track?

Obama is spending billions on a new network of faster trains. Is a car-crazed nation ready to add rails to the mix?

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Christopher Morris for TIME

Some routes, like this one between Tampa and Orlando, will get billions to test the notion that the U.S. is ready to take the train

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There was just one problem. High-speed rail works when it's connected to nearby public transit, not when you have to drive to the station on one end and rent a car or hail a cab at the other. But last year Florida's GOP-controlled legislature blocked a plan for a new Orlando-area commuter rail and slashed funding for a Miami-area line. So Obama's blunt Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, flew to Orlando and warned that if Florida didn't get its act together on commuter rail, it wouldn't get high-speed-rail money. As one official put it, you can't get into Harvard if you're flunking high school. Texas, Georgia and New York had ignored similar threats, but the notoriously dysfunctional Florida legislature met for a special session, reversed itself on commuter rail and created a high-speed-rail fund. "Las Vegas oddsmakers would've given a billion to 1," marvels Ed Turanchik, the head of Florida's high-speed-rail advocacy group.

The Tampa-Orlando line is expected to attract 2 million riders a year, more than half to a stop at Disney World. The entire route would take less than an hour, while braving the traffic on the interstate can take twice that. But there would be five stops — including one in sparse Polk County, home of several influential politicians — and none would link up with Orlando's new commuter trains, prompting talk of a sixth. "You can't have real high-speed rail if you're stopping all the time," Mica told me. "It's in my district. I should be as happy as a hog eating trash. But we need a real success, and this is pretty marginal." Mica says the only high-speed grants worthy of the name went to California, where voters have already approved $9 billion in bonds to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than three hours. But the land has yet to be purchased, the route isn't set, and the estimated cost has ballooned to more than $42 billion in an already overextended state — so Florida is the high-speed showcase for now.

Like every other House Republican, Mica voted against the stimulus, and if he seems unenthusiastic about the new bullet train in his backyard, he's downright irked by the Amtrak upgrades elsewhere. He used to describe them as "slow-speed trains to nowhere" until his Midwestern colleagues complained. Now he calls them "costly slow-speed trains to somewhere." Whatever. Mica sees Amtrak as a rat hole that loses money on every ticket it sells outside the lucrative Northeast corridor, as an antiquated system with 100-year-old bridges and tunnels, 80-year-old electrical systems and 60-year-old trains that travel slow and arrive late. "If high-speed rail gets hijacked by our existing Soviet-style train system, I'm not a happy camper," Mica says. He's equally critical of the paltry grants for the Northeast, since most U.S. flight delays are at New York City airports. "We need to pick routes that make sense," Mica says. "If we pick dogs, we'll end up scratching fleas."

LaHood, a former Republican Congressman from Peoria, Ill., is an affable guy, but when I related Mica's critique of Obama's rail surge, he turned red. "It's just a stunning about-face," he fumed. "It's schizophrenic." He said it was Mica who invited him to Orlando to push commuter rail and later thanked him for saving Florida's high-speed bid. "We did everything he asked!" he said. LaHood sees Tampa-Orlando as an opportunity to knit together two booming cities relatively quickly and cheaply so Americans can see bullet trains zipping past bumper-to-bumper traffic along I-4. But the real prize would be extending the line to Miami. Then it would give tourists who might want to see Miami's South Beach as well as Orlando's Epcot — and us locals who have to make the trip to see the in-laws — an alternative to the schlep of the highways or the 77 daily flights between Central and South Florida.

Ultimately, Tampa-Orlando is supposed to be only one step in a long journey toward a more balanced, more sustainable, less dangerous transportation network. "We can't just keep building more highways that turn into parking lots. People are tired of the congestion. Everyone has a horror story about flying too," LaHood said. "This is a new vision. You just walk on the train, flip open your laptop — it's nice!"

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