President Obama’s $8 billion plunge into 13 high-speed rail projects nationwide has the potential to become either his “Eisenhower moment” – moving the US into a new phase of transportation modernization – or just a dead end “drop in the bucket.”
The trip from St. Louis to Chicago, for example, could be chopped from 4.5 hours to about 3 hours and 40 minutes. But is that short enough to lessen the load on airports in the two cities and the highways in between?
He heralds the plan as "a giant step forward in the transformation of our nation’s transportation system." But others note that, to build a national high-speed rail network, the cost would be at least $100 billion.
“It really is only a drop in the bucket of what the nation will need to get the kind of high-speed rail network it needs,” says Jack Schenendorf, who was vice chairman of the a blue-ribbon commission that studied the nation’s transportation needs in a 2008 study. “Obviously, for high speed rail, it is a good development. But it will take a lot more money to get these systems built out.”
California the biggest winner
That doesn’t dismay advocates, who say the nation needs to lessen the load on the its highways and airports while cutting oil consumption, cleaning the air, and creating more jobs.
California will get $2.34 billion, the largest award, to help set up a high-speed line between San Diego and Sacramento by 2026. Top speeds on the line, which would go through Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, would hit 220 miles per hour. State officials say they need high-speed rail to lessen the load on the state's roads and airports
California expects its population to grow by 13.5 million during the next 20 years. That would mean an added 90 million to 115 million interregional or intercity trips. Without high-speed trains, those travelers would require 2,970 more miles of freeway lanes, five new runways, and 90 new airport gates for a cost of $82 billion, some estimates suggest.
“It’s the boldest move I’ve seen since Eisenhower proposed the interstate highway system,” Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the California High Speed Rail Authority told the Monitor in a recent interview.
Giddy and green
Beside the $8 billion in high-speed rail funding in last year’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), Obama has pledged an additional $5 billion through the annual budget process. States receiving more than $150 million in federal funds include Florida, North Carolina, Illinois, Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Virginia, and New York.
Only the Florida and California lines, however, will reach speeds of more than 150 m.p.h. – the traditional threshold to be considered high-speed rail.
Environmentalists seem almost giddy. Overall, once built out, a national high-speed network would cut oil use by 125 million barrels a year, says Rob McCulloch, transportation advocate for Environment America, a citizen-based environmental advocacy group.
“President Obama is delivering on his promise, putting America on track to a cleaner transportation future by investing in high-speed rail,” he says.
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