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US high-speed rail plans face persistent hurdles

Funding system under Obama draws criticism

WASHINGTON — On a 30-mile stretch of railroad between Westerly and Cranston, R.I., Amtrak’s 150-mile-per- hour Acela hits its top speed — for five or 10 minutes. On the crowded New York-Washington corridor, the Acela averages only 80 miles per hour, and plans to bring it up to Japanese bullet-train speeds will take $150 billion and 26 years, if it ever happens.

The Obama administration has spent nearly $11 billion since 2009 to develop faster passenger trains, but the projects have gone mostly nowhere and the United States still lags far behind Europe and China, where trains on average top 220 miles per hour. Although Republican opposition and community protests have slowed the projects, transportation policy experts and members of both parties also blame missteps by the Obama administration — which in July asked Congress for nearly $10 billion more for high-speed rail — for the failures.


Instead of putting the $11 billion directly into high-speed rail projects, they say, the administration made the mistake of parceling out the money to upgrade existing Amtrak service, which will allow trains to go no faster than 110 miles per hour. None of the money originally went to service in the Northeast corridor, the most likely place for high-speed rail. Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin, all led by Republican governors, in the meantime canceled high-speed rail projects and returned federal funds after deeming the projects too expensive and unnecessary.

“The Obama administration’s management of previously appropriated high-speed rail funding has been as clumsy as its superintending of the Affordable Care Act’s rollout,” said Frank N. Wilner, a former chief of staff at the Surface Transportation Board, a bipartisan body with oversight of the nation’s railroads.

High-speed rail was supposed to have been President Obama’s signature transportation project.

When he first presented his vision for it nearly four years ago, he described a future of sleek bullet trains hurtling passengers between far-flung US cities at more than 200 miles per hour.


“Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail,” Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union address. “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.”

But as Obama’s second term nears its midpoint, some experts say the president’s words were a fantasy.

“The idea that we would have a high-speed system that 80 percent of Americans could access in that short period of time was unadulterated hype, and it didn’t take an expert to see through it,” said Kenneth Orski, the editor and publisher of an influential transportation newsletter who served in the Nixon and Ford administrations. “And scattering money all around the country rather than focusing it on areas ripe for high-speed rail, didn’t help.”

But advocates say they are hopeful.

“Once something gets built then we’re going to see more projects get going,” said Ray LaHood, Obama’s first transportation secretary. LaHood said it took the interstate highway system decades to be completed, and he predicts that high-speed rail will be the same.

LaHood said California seemed the most likely candidate for success with high-speed rail, even though plans for a 520-mile train route between Los Angeles and San Francisco have been mired in controversy.


Despite strong backing from Governor Jerry Brown, a court ruling had tied up state bond funding for the $68 billion project.

An appeals court on July 31 threw out that ruling, which had been based on a lawsuit. But opponents are still increasing calls to kill the project, and polls show waning public support for it.

Still, California has begun construction of the tracks and put out bids for a vendor to build the trains. And the new rail project will get an infusion of funds from the state’s cap-and-trade-program, which requires business to pay for excess pollution.

But Representative Jeff Denham, the Republican who chairs the House Transportation subcommittee on railroads, said the state should not be in the railroad business.

“High-speed rail can be a good idea; I just think it should be left up to the private sector,” he said. Proposed projects in Texas and Florida, he added, were better models.