High-Speed Rail: Obama's High-Stakes Gamble

  • Share
  • Read Later

An artist's rendering of California's proposed high-speed rail

The master builder Robert Moses had a legendary strategy for ambitious public-works projects: start now, and figure out how to finish later. "Once you sink that first stake," he liked to say, "they'll never make you pull it up." And that, in essence, is the Obama Administration's strategy for spreading high-speed passenger rail across the United States.

It's an understandable strategy, since a true national network of bullet trains could cost as much as $1 trillion, and Obama has secured only $10.5 billion to start. But it's also a risky strategy, because the Administration is preparing to sink stakes in projects that might make perfect sense as links in that larger chain but look silly on their own. The first bullet train, an Orlando-Tampa line, has the feel of a glorified Disney shuttle. The boldest project, a Los Angeles–San Francisco line, was initially designed to begin with a train from nowhere to nowhere. Ohio got $400 million to launch a "high-speed" passenger service — with an average speeds of only 39 m.p.h. (63 km/h).

Yes, you've got to start somewhere. Yes, the first stretch of the first interstate highway probably looked like a road to nowhere, and the transcontinental railroad must have seemed like a pipe dream until its two ends linked up in Utah. And yes, high-speed rail has the potential to reduce carbon emissions, highway deaths and hassle while improving productivity, promoting smarter growth and launching a new domestic manufacturing industry.

Nevertheless, the optics are awful, and Republican politicians are exploiting them. The plodding Ohio line is already dead, thanks to Republican Governor-elect John Kasich; so is an $810 million Milwaukee-Madison train, killed by Wisconsin GOP Governor-elect Scott Walker. Now the Obama Administration has shifted most of the Ohio and Wisconsin money to California and Florida, doubling down on its biggest investments, hoping to build short-term momentum toward its long-term vision of a new way to move around the country.

Those four states help illustrate its Moses strategy, its high-stakes game of high-speed chicken. It's an awkward approach in an era of intense partisanship and brutal budget crises, and it's off to a rough start. But that doesn't mean it's doomed to failure. After all, neither Ohio nor Wisconsin had sunk any stakes before canceling their fledgling projects.

OHIO: "High-speed rail" conjures up images of sleek bullet trains that whip around Europe and Asia at over 200 m.p.h. (320 km/h), but so far Obama is pushing bullet trains only in California and Florida. Much of his program is actually "higher-speed rail": gradual upgrades to Amtrak lines that share track with freight railroads and can never exceed 110 m.p.h. (180 km/h). This is not crazy. When the goal is to provide alternatives to long drives and short flights, top speeds matter less than overall trip times, and relatively modest investments can generate real improvements that attract new riders — which in turn can generate momentum for additional investments, and so on. Slicing an hour off Chicago–St. Louis makes sense. Improving Charlotte-Raleigh in North Carolina makes sense.

The proposed "3-C" route that would have linked the Ohio cities of Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland at top speeds of 79 m.p.h. (127 km/h) — and average speeds of half that — did not make sense. Even as a first step towards 110 m.p.h., it seemed a pitiful alternative to driving on Rust Belt highways that aren't particularly congested. If anything, it was likely to destroy momentum for investments in high-speed rail during a time of limited resources. Republican Congressman John Mica, the incoming chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, says "dogs" like the Ohio train could imperil the entire program. "Believe me, they can really affect its future," Mica says. He'll take over the program's purse strings in January, so he's not talking about a theoretical future.

CALIFORNIA: Before Kasich and Walker scuttled their trains, construction on the Los Angeles–San Francisco line was supposed to start with a 65-mile (105 km) stretch from Corcoran, a tiny town south of Fresno, to Borden, an even tinier town north of Fresno. Obviously, the goal of this train from nowhere to nowhere was to pave the way for a train from somewhere to somewhere, but the optics would have been even worse than Ohio's. California fortunately got more than half of the $1.2 billion diverted from Ohio and Wisconsin, which will help it expand its first link to cover 120 miles (190 km) between Fresno and Bakersfield, the Central Valley's two largest cities.

That said, no one in their right mind would spend billions of dollars to build a Fresno-Bakersfield line in isolation either. It could only make sense as a jump-start for a line connecting L.A. to San Francisco in less than half the driving time; laying track around the densely populated endpoints would have been much more expensive, controversial and time-consuming than in the primarily agricultural Central Valley. And starting in the middle is a faster way to sink some stakes by 2012, create some jobs — high-speed rail was part of Obama's stimulus package, even though it didn't provide much stimulus — and build support for funding the rest of the $43 billion line so the completed patch wouldn't look like a preposterous boondoggle.

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2