PALO ALTO, Calif. - Critics began panning the first leg of California’s futuristic high-speed rail network as a “train to nowhere’’ soon after officials decided to build it not in the major population centers of Los Angeles or San Francisco but rather through the state’s Central Valley farming belt.
Since then, things have only gotten worse. Spiraling cost estimates and eroding political and public support now threaten a project crucial to a 21st-century vision of train travel that President Obama promised would transform US transportation much as interstate highways did more than half a century ago.
A national high-speed rail network would not only support construction and manufacturing jobs but also would get Americans out of their cars, revitalize struggling downtowns, and spare the environment carbon emissions, and travelers untold hours wasted in traffic or in airport terminals waiting out delays.
Obama set a goal of providing 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years. But that lofty vision is yielding to the political gravity generated by high costs, determined opponents, and a public that has grown dubious of government’s ability to do big things.
Virtually none of the projects have gotten off the ground, and the one that has is in trouble.
The plan that envisions bullet trains zipping between the nation’s major cities at speeds up to 220 miles per hour was one of the few transformative projects included in the $797 billion stimulus program enacted early in Obama’s presidency.
“Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation and ending up just blocks from your destination,’’ he said in 2009. “Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America.’’
So far, Obama has wagered more than $10 billion in federal money on high-speed rail, only to see his plans diminished, one after another.
Republican governors in Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio turned back billions of dollars in federal money for high-speed rail, denouncing the proposals both as creations of big government and as economically unfeasible.
Now the nation’s only pending true high-speed rail project is facing a crisis.
More than a decade ago, California formed a High-Speed Rail Authority to begin planning the system. In 2008, despite crushing state budget problems, California voters approved a referendum to sell nearly $10 billion in bonds to begin funding the project.
When the Obama administration kicked in nearly $3.5 billion in stimulus money, the project seemed to be on track to break ground later this year.
But since then, things have gone awry. Rather than beginning in one of the state’s major cities, planners decided to build the first phase along a 130-mile stretch of the Central Valley.
The idea was that land would be cheapest and construction easiest there, allowing the state to meet deadlines for spending the federal stimulus money and to build more miles of track for the dollar. In addition, the miles of relatively straight track would be a proving ground for the high-speed rail technology.
Still, many were baffled by the idea of sinking $6 billion into a rail line from just south of Merced to just north of Bakersfield.