So What’s Taking High-Speed Rail So Long?

Backers have long touted high-speed rail's promise as a way to accelerate intercity travel, but getting projects on the rails has gone a whole lot slower than a speeding bullet train. A few are moving along, though.

When it comes to high-speed rail—despite the massive investment made since 2009, when President Obama approved funding for the endeavor in the stimulus bill—the rest of the world is passing America by.

It’s not for lack of trying—$11 billion went into projects the administration hoped would be seen as a feather in Obama’s cap—but as it turns out, high-speed rail is a low-speed process.

“Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail,” the president promised in his 2011 State of the Union address, according to The New York Times. “This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying — without the pat-down.”

The Times piece notes this now is looking more like a pipe dream than a realistic goal, and the article quotes experts who say that the administration should have directed the money to areas where high-speed rail projects were likely to get off the ground quickly. Instead, it spread funding out nationwide, only to see states such as Wisconsin and Ohio—led by then-new Republican governors—decide to give the money back, leading the federal funds to be reallocated.

Still on the Tracks

Nonetheless, a few high-speed rail projects (beyond the original, the Northeast Corridor’s Acela trains) are moving forward. Some of the more high-profile projects:

California, here we come? Perhaps the most successful of the federally funded high-speed rail efforts so far has been California’s. Unlike other states, California has actually started construction on high-speed railroad tracks. That’s not to say that things haven’t been contentious—lawsuits have held up progress and state funding, though a court decision last week may have cleared a path to move forward. The planned 520-mile route between Los Angeles and San Francisco will be paid for in part by funding from the state’s cap-and-trade program.

Florida goes private: Meanwhile, one state that has managed to keep things moving despite opposition at the state level is Florida. Republican Gov. Rick Scott put the kibosh on federal funding in 2011—a controversial move at the time, considering that the offered federal funding would have covered the cost of a rail line between Tampa and Orlando, potentially easing traffic along the state’s busy Interstate 4 corridor. However, the private-sector plan All Aboard Florida is filling the void. Its proposed route eventually would connect the city of Miami with Orlando International Airport. The effort is currently in preliminary stages, though not without controversy and setbacks.

“68 trips a day” in Texas: The 239 miles separating Dallas and Houston could get a lot shorter by 2021. While laying of the groundwork on the high-speed rail connection between Texas’ two largest cities has yet to move forward, a private sector firm called Texas Central Railway hopes to get bullet trains, much like those used in Japan, ready to move in just a few years. The trains would travel at a peak speed of 200 miles per hour, and would get between the two cities in just 90 minutes. Speaking to Politico, Texas Central Railway Chairman and CEO Richard Lawless emphasized that the funding would not come from public sources.

Advocating for More

One industry group, the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association (USHSR), says that, although the initial high costs of implementing such programs may be tough to swallow, the long-term benefits—such as the ability to wean Americans off of fossil fuels and cut back on traffic congestion—make the investment worthwhile. On top of that, it’s worth noting that other countries are far ahead of the U.S. on the high-speed rail front.

“High speed rail creates millions of jobs, revives our manufacturing sector, stimulates real estate development, and saves energy, money, and time—year after year,” USHSR President and CEO Andy Kunz recently wrote in American Infrastructure Magazine. “It protects the nation from energy price spikes, and increases national security by reducing our dependence on foreign oil.”

For now, the Northeast Corridor's Acela is the only high-speed train in the country. (JamesZ_Flickr/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!