Redistributing High-Speed Rail Dollars: Still Useful!

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President Obama’s high-speed rail program has taken a lot of abuse because it isn’t just funding true high-speed rail; it’s also accelerating and improving service on moderate-speed trains. OK, guilty as charged. The program’s actual name is “High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail.” And now that Obama has redistributed the cash that Florida didn’t want — have I mentioned lately that my state is insane? — even a perennial critic of the program admits it looks “useful,” although he still says it doesn’t live up to its hype. OK, again, guilty as charged.

But it seems to me that usefulness is a good standard to judge a government program.  And this last $2 billion round of funding really does look useful.

The biggest chunk, $795 million, went to upgrades in the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s most traveled and most profitable route. Most of that will replace an outdated electrical system to allow speeds up to 160 miles per hour over a 24-mile segment north of Philadelphia. Amtrak will also eliminate bottlenecks that slow down trains in New York, Rhode Island and Maryland. This made a lot of sense. And it had bipartisan appeal; House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, a Florida Republican, has clamored for more investment in the Northeast Corridor.

Did Mica thank the administration? No, he issued a scathing press release complaining that Amtrak — “our nation’s Soviet-style passenger rail service” — is sure to screw up the project. I like Mica, but he has a weird way of showing gratitude when it comes to high-speed rail.

The next biggest winner was the Midwest, which got $670 million for new trains and upgrades to various routes, including a Chicago-St. Louis corridor that I happened to ride last week down to Normal, Ill.  This isn’t a classic high-speed rail project, because it’s only increasing speeds from 79 m.p.h. to 110 m.p.h., but it will still reduce overall trip times by more than an hour, and dramatically improve reliability. The number of passengers traveling between Chicago and Normal has already doubled over the last few years; the higher speeds should send demand through the roof.

The final big winner was California, which is trying to build the only true high-speed rail project now that Florida has bowed out, and it faces more political, logistical and financial challenges than the other 30 states in the program combined. It received another $300 million for its ambitious 220-m.p.h. route between Los Angeles and San Francisco, which the state has chosen to begin in the middle of the Central Valley. California had already vacuumed up more than $3 billion in federal funds for the route, enough to connect Fresno to Bakersfield; this additional chunk will extend the route 20 miles north to a junction where trains could either head north to Merced or west to San Jose.

Of course, all of that will depend on future state and federal funding. The entire project is supposed to cost $43 billion; a California legislative committee just issued a brutal report, and Obama’s recent call for $53 billion for high-speed rail fell on deaf ears in Congress.

So yes, it’s true. High-speed rail has not yet lived up to its hype.  Obama has not yet delivered high-speed service to 80% of Americans. On the other hand, he has laid the groundwork for invigorating our pitiful passenger rail service. And even if this Congress and future Congresses abandon his vision, the money he’s spending now will still help improve service in the Midwest, the Northeast and other key corridors, reduce some oil consumption, relieve some congestion in highways and airports, and give some commuters and travelers a much better experience. That’s useful!

There’s a larger point here about how to judge Obama, who has not bridged the partisan divide or halted the rise of the oceans or fulfilled some of the other messianic promises he made on the campaign trail, but has achieved some very big things that will be very useful to many Americans. But that’s a story for another day.