High-Speed Rail: Obama's High-Stakes Gamble
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). (Can high-speed rail help make America green?)
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. (See the top 10 American political prodigies.)
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. (See photos of China's high-speed-rail system.)
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. (Comment on this story.)
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.
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. (See the top 10 green stories of 2010.)
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. (See a brief history of high-speed rail.)
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!' " (See photos of the world's longest railroad tunnel.)
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.