Obama Switches High-Speed Rail to Fast Track

Posted by Thomas J. Billitteri
Staff writer, CQ Researcher

On the heels of his State of the Union address, in which he vowed to make jobs his No. 1 priority in 2010, President Obama said Thursday his administration will invest $8 billion in high-speed passenger-rail projects in California, the Southeast, Midwest, Northeast and Pacific Northwest. The White House expects the long-anticipated plan to create or save tens of thousands of jobs in coming years in everything from manufacturing and track laying to planning and engineering.

States have been vying over the money for months, and most of it will be used to improve service on existing rail corridors. But some of it is aimed at getting new fast-rail projects up and running — notably in California, where backers are seeking to build a $45 billion, 220 mph system, and in Florida along a Tampa-Orlando corridor.

Not surprisingly, rail enthusiasts hailed the announcement as far-sighted and sound. “These investments promise to bring Americans freedom to choose an attractive alternative to crowded highways and airports while making it easier for travelers to connect among trains, cars, planes and local transit,” the National Association of Railroad Passengers said.

But when I wrote about Obama’s plans for high-speed rail back in May, I ran into plenty of skeptics who said pouring money into a network of fast trains was an idea destined for derailment. Some argued that the geographic and demographic features of the United States make fast rail much costlier and less likely to succeed than in the compact countries of Europe, where zippy trains are a transportation staple. Others expressed doubts that Americans would park their cars and ride the rails in sufficient numbers to make the trains profitable. Some fear local politics will come into play, with cities and towns along rail corridors demanding to be included among the stops — thereby defeating the purpose of high-speed rail. And some argue that spending money on rail is frivolous at a time when federal deficits are zooming faster than a runaway locomotive.

But with unemployment at 10 percent — and much higher in some beaten-down industrial pockets —and many Americans demanding a more modern transportation system, Obama is hoping his rail initiative will be both an economic and political winner.

To learn more about the issues surrounding the administration’s plans for high-speed trains and the feasibility of transforming America’s passenger-rail network, see the CQ Researcher’s report, “High-Speed Trains,” May 1, 2009.