Obama Administration Wants to Spend $53 Billion on High-Speed Rail

By Andrew Moseman | February 9, 2011 10:43 am

Fresh off the President’s State of the Union call to extend high speed rail to 80 percent of Americans, the Obama administration trotted out its chief train enthusiast to propose a shot in the arm to rail development. From 30th Street Station in Philadelphia yesterday, Vice President Joe Biden proposed a $53 billion plan to build high-speed rail lines all around the country.

“In a global economy, we can’t forget that infrastructure is also the veins and the arteries of commerce,” Mr. Biden said. He frequently travels between his home state of Delaware and Washington on Amtrak trains. [Wall Street Journal]

Biden says $8 billion of that will be included in the President’s budget proposal set to go to Congress next week. The rest would be parceled out over the course of six years.

Advocates say U.S. investment in high-speed rail lags many other countries and point to China, which plans to invest $451 billion to $602 billion in its high-speed rail network between 2011 and 2015, according to the China Securities Journal. [Reuters]

Nevertheless, any large transportation spending will have a hard time getting through the newly installed Republican majority in the House. The federal government would also have to grapple with Republican governors in states where this rail infrastructure would be built, who often pride themselves on symbolic opposition to such spending. Wisconsin and Ohio’s governors recently refused federal rail money, and New Jersey’s Chris Christie canceled the ARC Tunnel project, which was intended to improve the overloaded connections used by people commuting from New Jersey to New York.

This week rail enthusiasts struck back, first with an Amtrak proposal to take over the ARC tunnel pathway and complete the new connection to Manhattan, and now with Biden’s funding proposal.

The White House has argued that, as the economy slowly recovers, it is too early to press the brakes on all spending. “We all agree we need to cut spending to get the deficit under control,” Mr. Biden said. However, he added, “When it comes to jobs, there are three key places where we cannot compromise. We cannot compromise on education, innovation or infrastructure.” [Wall Street Journal]

Once again, though, the question remains what to fund where. Another conservative critique of rail funding is that it ought to be focused on the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor line from Boston to Washington, D.C., which could definitely use a little help. But, as evidenced by Obama’s stated goal of expanding high speed rail availability to most Americans, his administration is thinking about infrastructure in the much larger picture. One big goal is putting up the money to actually build the much-ballyhooed California rail line from the Bay Area to Los Angeles.

Already armed with $9 billion in state bonds and about $3.6 billion from the federal government, the influx of the new federal grants could put California about two-thirds of the way toward funding the entire project. The state hopes to leverage the public funding to bankroll the rest of the project through the private sector and local governments, in time to start speeding bullet trains between the Bay Area and Southern California by 2020. [San Jose Mercury News]

Related Content:
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Image: Wikimedia Commons

  • Matt B.

    What a great line from Biden. I’m writing that one down.

  • Jason

    A problem with high speed rail is that most cities aren’t set up to handle it well. People arrive at their destination but they have no car to get around. They have to rely on slow buses, cabs, or car rentals. If the rail ends in the heart of downtown and you need to go to three places spread around the city how do you do it? I would have to be traveling many hundreds of miles for it to be worth it to me. For the most part the only people that would benefit from high speed rail are the poor that can’t fly and don’t have a car. Once cities start improving public transportation within their own cities we can think about linking cities via high speed trains. Spend this money on roads, interstates, and bridges.

  • scott

    Jason, you are right…what’s someone going to do when they arrive in downtown LA without decent transport to its many burbs? Europe has a huge advantage as it has been dealing with moving people this way and spending money on it for decades and they still have many obsticles. And the GOP might just kill this, wanting its obese followers packed into cars burning oil and sucking down slurpies and corn byproducts shaped and flavored into exciting treats that will tantilate and stimulate the mouth and feel good receptors in the brain.

    At any rate, there areas that could benefit with high speed rail, like a Boston-Miami line, or a LA-Vegas, SF-Seattle, both have an OK transport system. Also, Texas COULD benefit, like trains from Dallas to Corpus via Austin and San Antonio and to Houston, completing the triangle….but still…getting around once there. Plus, our cities are so different, you can hop off the train in many cities in France and walk across town in 20 minutes….you cant do that in most cities in the US. But I still hope they build some. I’d ride them.

  • Phil

    Another idiotic idea. Studies have repeatedly shown that high-speed rail is a poor choice for this country. It requires dedicated lines to allow for 150+ mph travel. You can’t use existing lines that are being used by other slower moving traffic such as freight. Extensive ground transportation is still needed to get to the rail hubs, eliminating any time savings . It is a boondogle.

  • Tom

    High Speed Rail is a topic I anguish over. I’m personally fond of it – I like the concept. But I look at Amtrak and the reality of its almost certain under-use, and shudder at the potential waste of money – PUBLIC money.

    One small part of the puzzle I would throw forward is to at least consider breaking from the mental assumption that you have to connect downtowns. For ex., in Washington, DC going to Union Station might make sense, but linking a High Speed system merely to the airports (BWI, Dulles) would be worth at least considering. Passengers could then de-train there and switch transportation modes: to local subways, commuter buses, rental cars, etc. A traveler from Boston could take a bullet train that would only stop at NYC, Philly, and then at BWI airport near Baltimore. They could then rent a car, or transfer to an Amtrak to Florida, or get a local bus or hotel shuttle.

    I am not saying this is THE solution, but it could be a partial resolution to the concerns noted here – why not piggy back on that existing airport infrastructure?

  • Brian Too

    @2. Jason,

    I agree. Millions of people fly every day and what is waiting for them at the destination? Nothing! They are stuck in the airport terminal with no possibility of escape, except to fly back. That’s why we have to keep expanding the airports!

    Sheesh, talk about over-stating a minor problem.

  • Mark T

    I recommend reading Randal O’Toole’s examinations of high speed rail and other transportaion policies that turnout to be colossal wastes of money.

    Here is one but all his work is very compelling


  • http://clubneko.net/ nick

    A 1+ trillion dollar deficit is coming again. As much as I would love to see our country catch up in areas like this, we can’t ignore the fact that we are hemorrhaging money like you wouldn’t believe, and we will eventually hit the wall with our creditors. Debt in this country has been spiraling out of control since the 80s as well as outsourcing – we still have the highest wages in the world but they are getting parceled out to fewer and fewer jobs. If no one here is making money, we’ll have no hope of ever paying it back. Using tax dollars to ‘create jobs’ is (forgive the tired old adage) robbing Peter to pay Paul. We’ve pumped billion after billion of stimulus money into the economy and what exactly do we have to show for it in terms of job creation? We’ve not even treaded water with job creation (yes, jobs have been added but not enough to keep up with the equilibrium level necessitated by population growth).

    It’s all well and good to imagine these ideas will have good economic benefits, but at our current rate, the four year post-Bush era will have expanded the national debt by about the same dollar amount Bush did in his entire eight year reign.

    At our current rate of decay, I’ll just be happy to see California’s economy not collapse entirely. I have no hope of ever seeing an actual high speed rail constructed down the coast in my lifetime (I forget the exact figures, but it’s something like if they had the money and started today, it would be operational in 30 years).

  • JoshuaKlein

    Population density is the key here. HSR would be a good idea for the very densely populated North East corridor and perhaps a small sliver of California. That’s about it. We should simply start with these, as they make the most compelling economic case.

    All these other proposals for Florida, Ohio, and other places are just too much.

    Sure, the Chinese are building a much more extensive network, then again, their population density is order of magnitude greater.

    HSR is a good idea, but blindly copying the size and extent of the Chinese network is just a pissing match, not a sound idea.


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