Big News: Obama’s California Bullet Train Is Still on Track

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Eric Risberg / AP

California Gov. Jerry Brown, center, walks to a news conference to mark a $15 million grant awarded to the Port of Oakland to fund its rail development project on Monday, July 9, 2012 in Oakland, Calif.

Last week’s most important story was not the jobs numbers or the heat, but the California legislature’s close partisan vote to go ahead with its controversial high-speed rail line, a $68 billion bullet train designed to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles in under three hours. The mega-project still faces political, logistical and financial uncertainties, but it now has a path to construction—and as I’ve written, once construction starts it will be tough to stop. That’s a big deal for President Obama and the high-speed rail program he launched in his 2009 stimulus bill. (Yes, I know, I’m predictable.) The California project is Obama’s last chance to launch real high-speed rail, and having it scuttled would have been an embarrassment as well as a disappointment.

(PHOTOS: The World’s Longest Railroad Tunnel)

The high-speed program was mostly about higher-speed rail, not just 200 m.p.h. bullet trains, and it’s already promoting faster and more reliable train service in 31 states. But Obama has hyped the program as a chance for Americans to experience the wow machines that are already whipping travelers around Europe and Asia. A planned Tampa-to-Orlando bullet train was supposed to be under construction by now, but Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Tea Party Republican, killed it after taking office. (GOP governors also killed a worthy project in Wisconsin and a dubious project in Ohio.) The California plan is not as shovel-ready as Florida’s—the route for the first 130 miles of track through the Central Valley hasn’t even been finalized—but it has the support of Democratic Governor Jerry Brown.

Like electric cars, solar power, and other stimulus-funded causes, high-speed rail was once bipartisan; former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is an avid supporter, as are local Republicans like Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearingen. But ever since high-speed rail became an Obama priority, Washington Republicans have turned against it en masse. House Government Operations Chairman Darrell Issa has vowed to investigate the California project, and his fellow California Republican, Jeff Denham, wants to strip its funding. There was no new high-speed cash this year, and there probably won’t be as long as the GOP holds the House.

(MORE: Obama’s Big, Bold Bet on High-Speed Rail)

But thanks to 21 Democrats in the California Senate, the Central Valley leg will get $2.6 billion in state bond money, along with $3.2 billion in federal cash that would have returned to Washington if the vote had gone the other way. Critics have mocked the initial Madera-to-Bakersfield route as a train to nowhere, but California has to start somewhere, and construction in the flat and sparsely populated Central Valley will be cheaper and faster than blasting through mountains or cities. Starting in the middle also makes it more likely that the project will be completed, since powerful interests in San Francisco and Los Angeles will clamor for more track.

America can only build so many superhighways, and short-haul flights may become prohibitively expensive as the era of cheap fuel ends. High-speed trains are nice ways to travel, and they can reduce road and air congestion as well as carbon emissions and fuel costs. They can also be extremely profitable; the hope is that once government shows a tangible commitment to the project, private companies will help finance the rest of the infrastructure. Of course, high-speed rail projects also create construction jobs—once construction actually begins.

(MORE: A Brief History of High-Speed Rail)

We’ll see. There will be lawsuits and hearings and other obstacles. But for now, the California project–and Obama’s dream of sleek American bullet trains–is still alive. Last week, that was by no means a sure thing.

105 comments
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Heterotic
Heterotic

This is a solution looking for a problem. Air travel in the US is convenient, rail travel is not. The worst car congestion problems are within urban areas such as the Bay Area and the LA area, where mass transit is virtually non-existent. For 68 billion dollars that could be addressed to a degree, as well as high speed internet for telecommuting. Bullet trains in Europe are actually not all that prevalent. Bullet trains in China are unaffordable for most people . Go compare Amtrak fares to airfares to get an idea as to whether or not it will be any different in the US.

ChrisLoos
ChrisLoos

Congratulations to California, congratulations to America.  I'm proud of my state and my country today.  Slowly but surely, we're crawling into the 21st century.

Altold
Altold

Republicans should learn to draw a line between what is good for the Americans and just playing politics. I can see clearly now. 

3xfire3
3xfire3

My compliments to the 20% of liberals that posted in opposition to this boondoggle. You are intelligent and rational people.

We are broke. We are 16 trillion dollars in debt.

For the 80% of liberals that posted with enthusiasm for this boondoggle you people are total nuts.

Sheepleherder
Sheepleherder

This type of monument to a leaders “greatness” went out of style with the pyramids.

California doesn’t have a "train culture" for a reason, why spend three hours on a train when you can fly in a third the time? Those who don't want to spend the money to fly, usually don't commute that far anyway. The future is not in moving people with “high speed trains”, it's in moving information via high-speed data links! With the proper technology, you can be at any meeting, anywhere, in real time and never leave your office or home. This is the 21st century why waste scarce resources on eighteenth century technology?

ath716
ath716

"They can also be extremely profitable; the hope is that once government shows a tangible commitment to the project, private companies will help finance the rest of the infrastructure."

BWAH, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA!  HEE, HEE, HEE, HEE, HEE! 

Thanks, I needed that. 

Owl96
Owl96

Some think that spending money on Deep Space Missions is research money well spent, but  trying to upgrade land transportation technology is throwing away money.   Lets see...I will not be riding the California train, nor will I be heading for deep space.  Both are worthwhile projects that may have many benefits and private investment in the future.  If it is done for stimulus, it is questionable.  If it is done to help Californians move faster, it is questionable.  If it is done to help spur innovation and future investment, go for it! 

MrObvious
MrObvious

Lets invest in more war, not better infra structure and technology in our country.

bebo
bebo

"Obama's " bullet trains?   Obama's trains to nowhere would run on wind and solar, and of course - hope.  Now let's read about that fascinating anti-Romney poll that the Democrats are pouncing on.  No bias here.  Check MSNBC for that.   Obama needs to thank Bush for those tax cuts, so he can stop the "Jay Gatsbys"  Yes, go after those fictional characters.  

He'd better win, because sticking his neck out for gay marriage took more courage than attacking Iraq, and with less approval. 

SmilingSmartBlonde
SmilingSmartBlonde

Like electric cars, solar power, and other stimulus-funded causes, high-speed rail was once bipartisan

Read more: http://swampland.time.com/2012...

Now, now---tell me it is not true that the GOP simply wants to obstruct all investments? Where is the wisdom of that?

Let's put our money to good use.  

By the way, GOP donations are pouring in. Romney Outraises Obama By $35 Million In June per NPR. 

Tell me, is that a good use of money? Is that a good investment?

skibumm
skibumm

We are all doomed if politics can't be put aside for the better of our nation and the world for that matter. 2 steps forward, 3 steps back, that's the way of our political parties, with unfortunately no end in sight.  

Alex Cotman
Alex Cotman

Republicans - Holding America back from the progress it so desperately needs.

f_galton
f_galton

"Obama’s dream of sleek American bullet trains–is still alive"

Who cares? This high speed rail project is a waste of money. It will go massively over budget, it will not meet ridership projections, which  means on balance it will be bad for the environment. Besides which, California is broke. 

Heterotic
Heterotic

High speed rail through CA Central Valley will just serve illegal aliens trying to spread out faster.

vstillwell
vstillwell

A conservative baby boomers worst nightmare--progress! 

Fastgirl
Fastgirl

Sounds like to me that the only reason this project was approved was becaused it would have been a embarrassemnt to the president if it hadn't. Good reason to spend money we don't have  Not.

TAJW
TAJW

Hey...can we give California back to Mexico now?  That would be a great help to the rest of us.

BettyBlueEyes
BettyBlueEyes

 Hmmm... The Golden Gate Bridge was the target of 200,000 lawsuits. People claimed there was no money to build it (we were in a Depression), that nobody would use it, that it would be ugly, that it would reduce property values, etc etc. Now it's busy as Hell, and it's one of the most popular landmarks in the world. Hoover Dam... again, assailed as a waste of money during the Depression. Tennessee Valley Authority... same thing. Electrifying rural America in the Depression... same thing. Putting people to work stimulates the economy. They spend what they earn. They invest what they earn. They pay taxes on what they earn. Far better than sinking it into ... how many wars??? Apparently, Republicans are wealthy enough that they don't care about jobs. And by the way, WHERE IS THAT JOBS PLAN THEY PROMISED?????

BettyBlueEyes
BettyBlueEyes

 Apparently, you don't live here. Try getting stuck on the ever-more-crowded highways. Try controlling air quality with air traffic and car traffic. Maybe we have a vision that the rest of you nay-sayers just can't grasp. We'll have to spend more money on California highways and airports, or we'll have to spend more money on high-speed rail. We've chosen to go with innovation. Stand aside, please.

StevenR01
StevenR01

I'm sorry. There is NO DIFFERENCE WHATSOEVER between STIMULUS and something that spurs INNOVATION and INVESTMENT. They are one in the same.

Now what would REALLY HELP is a 99.99% tax on EVERY DIME OVER A MILLION DOLLARS IN INCOME. All that money chasing BUBBLES would be much better spent BY THE GOVERNMENT ON STIMULUS.

It would be better if we reclaimed the money with taxes and KICKED IT OUT OF AIRPLANE DOORS OVER THE INNER CITY. It would be WAY MORE USEFUL. It would get back into useful circulation- into small business - and out of the hands of the BUBBLE CREATORS!

conet
conet

San Francisco and Los Angeles are "nowhere"?

bobell
bobell

If you're rich, Romney is a great investment.

StevenR01
StevenR01

No. IRAQ was a waste of money. We Spent TRILLIONS to find Bush's WMD's and found NONE. ZERO ZILCH.

A rail line is an INVESTMENT IN INFRASTRUCTURE.

Jeeprs. Would someone give the GOP some cue cards to tell the difference?

NOTE: anything that either BLOWS UP or allows something to BLOW UP is NOT AN INVESTMENT. An AIRCRAFT CARRIER IS A WASTE OF MONEY and can NEVER BE CALLED AN INVESTMENT. Likewise a warplane, missile, bomb, bullet, tank, etc., etc.,

GOT IT GOP????

BettyBlueEyes
BettyBlueEyes

Is that the smartest thing you can say? Or is there more brilliance where that  came from?

nflfoghorn
nflfoghorn

I ask again: Do you feel the same about our tax $ being used to build the interstate system under Eisenhower?

BettyBlueEyes
BettyBlueEyes

 He says as he posts a message using technology that California developed, perfected, and excels in...

vstillwell
vstillwell

So tell me how California is hurting you? 

Dan Schmidt
Dan Schmidt

 What would really help is removing the caps lock key from your keyboard.

bebo
bebo

That's not the route.

Dan Schmidt
Dan Schmidt

 If the something that "BLOWS UP" brings a net profit to the nation then it is not a waste of money.

For example: say the nation uses that "AIRCRAFT CARRIER" to protect shipping lanes in the straights of Hormuz, thereby lowering gas prices by ten cents/barrel.  Do you know how much that saves American consumers over the course of a year?

f_galton
f_galton

That the federal government wastes money on wars and defense and many other areas does not justify California's wasting money on this high speed rail project.

filmnoia
filmnoia

Let's just call a spade a spade - the present GOP doesn't care about the future of the country. With their 1% paymasters they are raping and looting everything they can now. The hell with future generations. It's the aging Baby Boomer "I got mine" mentality.  Being from that demographic I know where of I speak. It will take the next generation to save us, but it may well be too late.

Heterotic
Heterotic

Betty, you have trouble with simple English? I wrote that one does not need to spend 68 billion USD to transport farmers from Modesto to sell their lettuce, I did not that it was to actually transport the lettuce. You really should get a refund on the so-called masters and invest the money in an English language course, this is pathetic.

Heterotic
Heterotic

I have made many cogent arguments already, but your mythical Masters degree did not supply you with the intellect to understand it. However, since you are the highly educated masters student why do you not explain why the government should spend 68 billion USD to make it possible for farmers from Modesto to go to SF or LA to sell their lettuce, rather than drive. 

Heterotic
Heterotic

 HaHa, you do need a refund on your mythical Masters. SF area has second best mass transit in the US; so what, mass transit in the US is virtually non-existent. Who cares how one gets from Modesto, an agrarian town, to SF or LA, that will never impact mass transit or fossil fuel consumption in the US. When ones designs high speed rail it is meant to bypass little towns like Modesto. Aircraft flying from SF to LA or reverse do not stop there, the only people who go there are illegal aliens. Gert a real education, not a fake Masters and bad ideas.

Heterotic
Heterotic

Actually you should broaden your vision. This is a solution looking for a problem. Air travel in the US is convenient, rail travel is not. The worst car congestion problems are within urban areas such as the Bay Area and the LA area, where mass transit is virtually non-existent. For 68 billion dollars that could be addressed to a degree, as well as high speed internet for telecommuting. Bullet trains in Europe are actually not all that prevalent. Bullet trains in China are unaffordable for most people . Go compare Amtrak fares to get an idea as to whether or not it will be different in the US. Guess your Masters did not teach you much, might want to ask for your money back.

Heterotic
Heterotic

Actually the comment is quite correct, the first 130 miles will be in the Central Valley which is all agrarian, many workers are illegals, and there is not guarantee that the right of ways needed to extend the rail into the city centers will ever be arranged. People like you should try getting educated.

Dan Schmidt
Dan Schmidt

You are comparing a bloated, partisan, overbudget plan to connect two cities to the interstate highway system?

TAJW
TAJW

Really?  You think that California developed and perfected this all by itself?  Amazing...

As to excelling at it....that's pretty clearly up for debate.

TAJW
TAJW

Oh...maybe you missed it in the article...here, let me post it for you:

"the Central Valley leg will get $2.6 billion in state bond money, along with $3.2 billion in federal cash that would have returned to Washington"

And I will bet you a case of Napa Valley wine that the 3.2 billion is just the tip of the iceberg for federal funds ... meaning it comes from taxes I pay.  So...next time, read the article before you make an inane comment.

bobell
bobell

California continues to pay more in taxes to the federal Govt than it gets back in federal funds.  The states that are hurting this TAJW person are the likes of Mississippi and Alabama, whose sucking on the federal teat far exceeds what they give back.

But let's not let the facts get in the way.

BettyBlueEyes
BettyBlueEyes

 Idiot. What map are you reading? The cities in the San Joaquin Valley deserve to be connected to SF and LA just like any other growing area. They want it, and we're not turning them down. Where do you want to run it? Along the coast?

bobell
bobell

The first phase is in the Central Valley.  The current plan has the full route running from LA to SF via the Central Valley and San Jose.  Possible future expansion would add Sacramento and San Diego.  Even without San Diego the line will serve three of the top fifteen American cities in population. San Diego will be the fourth.

The only comparable concentration of population in the US along a comparable length of road or rail is Boston-Washington, which has five major population centers along the route, just as will the California line if fully completed.

And even if the line itself loses money, it will save a fortune in highway construction forgone.  Not to mention the stimulus effect of all those jobs.

It won't be perfect. but it's a lot more productive use of federal funds than cutting taxes on the one percent.

f_galton
f_galton

Squandering money on high speed rail doesn't help future generations.

BettyBlueEyes
BettyBlueEyes

Um...  HSR is for passengers, not for freight. Try to keep up.

BettyBlueEyes
BettyBlueEyes

And you need a refund on your mythical intelligence. LOLOL! Nice try. Why don't you attempt for once to make a cogent argument? Go ahead. Try again. Go!!

BettyBlueEyes
BettyBlueEyes

 Ah yes... the know-it-all theory of transportation. And how would you get from Modesto to SF quickly and with minimum stress? Airplane? Bzzzzzt. Wrong. Freeway? Bzzzzt. Wrong again. You seem to think that this is a track serving only SF and LA with nothing in between. And mass transit is non-existent in SF and LA?? Bzzzzt. Wrong again. Actually, SF is one of the best-served areas for public transit. In fact, the entire SF Bay area came up as second-best for transit connections for workers in the US... same rating as last year. Now, as far as transit in the LA area... OK, if you want to go from, say, downtown LA to San Fernando Valley, maybe you have a point. But then you'd have that same problem if you had to transfer from LAX to San Fernando Valley. So.... Bzzzzzt. Wrong again.

BettyBlueEyes
BettyBlueEyes

 Um... sorry. I am educated. I have a master's degree in transportation engineering. And I live in the San Joaquin Valley. We have millions of people here, and we do travel around the state. And guess what. Life itself has no guarantees. There were no guarantees that the interstate highway system would be funded end-to-end, and it took from the mid-Fifties until 1993 to build-out. And... the first miles were built in Kansas. People like you should broaden your vision.

BettyBlueEyes
BettyBlueEyes

 Oh man.... Connecting two cities? I suppose there will be no stops along the way to connect a whole host of other cities. LOL. That's like saying, "Let's not fund the interstate highway system. Who travels from NY to LA every week?"

BettyBlueEyes
BettyBlueEyes

Montana? Montana??? How about if you stay out of California's business? Montana takes in more federal dollars than it pays out. California pays more than it takes in. Why don't you learn why we're successful enough to support ourselves AND you? Tell me exactly what Montana contributes to the rest of the country. No, wait. Don't bother. I really don't care. We just don't want you standing in our way.

TAJW
TAJW

I don't have a problem living in reality.  Life is pretty real out here in Montana. The fantasy world you have created, supported by imaginary money, gambling on wishes instead of reality, and general Moonbeam type of thought is another whole story.  You'd be much better suited to answer your own question.

TAJW
TAJW

How about if you check the real facts...not something made up by liberal media.  California does NOT pay more in Federal tax than it receives...not even close.

The numbers bandied about by libs include companies that may have headquarters there....the numbers are way overinflated...and other 'facts' are just flat made up.

Once again...build you house of lies on top of other lies...that's the lib way.

bobcn
bobcn

'I'd be all for a giant construction project that would separate that section between Texas and Florida'

Apparently, losing the people in Texas and Florida wouldn't be much of a loss.  Their own governors don't seem to place much value on the lives of the people who live there -- given Perry's and Scott's unwillingness to accept federal Affordable Care Act dollars to protect their citizens from disease and death.

filmnoia
filmnoia

I'd be all for a giant construction project that would separate that section between Texas and Florida and let it just drift into the Gulf of Mexico. For those good people who still want to be part of the USA give them 60 days notice to leave. The rest of the parasites we don't need.