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

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

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But there are serious questions about the rest of the line: the route, the ridership projections, how much it will cost, who will pay for it and whether it will get the political support it needs to survive. California is already facing a $28 billion budget gap, and even rail-friendly legislators are afraid that massive high-speed cost overruns could lead to vicious cuts in social services and existing transportation projects. The California High-Speed Rail Authority has clearly adopted a Moses strategy, which is why opponents want to kill the project before construction can begin. "Once this gets started, there's an unspoken mandate to finish the entire system," says a high-speed-rail cheerleader. "That's what the other side is afraid of."

FLORIDA: The L.A.-S.F. route, for all its problems, would be genuine high-speed rail. America's first planned bullet route, an 84-mile (135 km) hop from Tampa to Orlando featuring five stops and a top speed of 168 m.p.h. (270 km/h), is really too short and too slow to earn that distinction. It was fast-tracked because it's the nation's most shovel-ready project — it has all the needed permits plus the land on the Interstate 4 median — and it's Obama's only hope for a bullet train that could be ready to ride during his second term. But it's hard to justify as anything but the first link of Tampa-Orlando-Miami. Mica represents Orlando, but even he is skeptical of the Tampa end of the line; he suspects that most of the riders will be tourists shuttling a few miles between Disney World and the Orlando airport. And Florida Governor-elect Rick Scott, also a Republican, has suggested that he's willing to kill the train if his state has to help pay for it.

Thanks to Ohio and Wisconsin, Tampa-Orlando just got another big chunk of money, so Scott probably won't have to make good on that threat. The feds have now covered almost 90% of the estimated $2.7 billion cost, and the contractor selected to build and operate the line — at least seven major firms are planning bids — will be likely to cover the difference, partly because a subsequent Orlando-Miami segment is seen as a potential cash cow, and partly for the publicity sure to surround the first bullet train. "If the endgame was Tampa-Orlando, I can't say it makes sense," concedes Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. "But as a first piece of a national system, it makes a lot of sense."

China plans to spend $300 billion building a national high-speed-rail system by 2020; Spain hopes to complete a $200 billion network that same year. It's not possible to build a national system in the U.S., or even a complete regional corridor, with $10.5 billion. So the Obama Administration spread its initial grants around 31 states, hoping to build political momentum for the program around the country. Maybe states will like what they get and decide they want more. Maybe states will see Florida's spiffy bullet train zipping past traffic stalled on I-4 and decide they want something like it — even if it's not zipping as fast as it ought to be.

WISCONSIN: Then again, maybe they won't. Chicago-Milwaukee has been a big success, Amtrak's fastest-growing line outside the Northeast Corridor. Milwaukee-Madison was expected to be equally popular and a crucial step toward a Chicago-Minneapolis line that could transform the region. But Walker ran against the new train as the local embodiment of Big Government, and he won easily. No, stakes hadn't been sunk, but the feds had committed $810 million; Moses always expected politicians to cash checks like that. Walker didn't, even though the costs to the state would have been minimal.

Big Government is always a convenient political opponent, especially when times are tough and families are cutting back, and the Administration was clearly overconfident that high-speed rail would inevitably expand once stakes were sunk. Still, it's one thing to complain about federal spending and quite another thing to divert it elsewhere. Shortly after Wisconsin's money was redistributed, the Spanish firm Talgo announced plans to shut down its U.S. train-manufacturing operations in Milwaukee and relocate the jobs to a state that continues to pursue high-speed rail. "I can't wait to see the ads in Wisconsin in 2014," an Obama aide says. "You'll have some guy working on the train in Florida: 'Thanks for my job, Governor Walker!' "

The aide didn't say whether he expected to see high-speed-rail ads in 2012. By then, the first stakes will be sunk in Florida, and opponents will be mocking the Tampa-Orlando project as a ridiculous relic of a free-spending era, while supporters will be hailing it as an inspiring throwback to the days when America dreamed big and built big. It will be a proxy for a larger argument about the role of American government, and the outcome may well determine whether Obama gets to ride the train as President — and, perhaps, whether the train ever really leaves the station.

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