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Obama’s State of the Union: The facts about high-speed rail in the U.S.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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California, transportation,railroadPresident Obama made several references to the development of high-speed railways in the U.S., during his State of the Union Address, and stated that one of his administration’s goals is to, within 25 years, "give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail." In support of this goal—which would go a long way toward alleviating air and road traffic and its associated pollution—the Obama administration last year began doling out the $8 billion it had promised for such projects as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Yet, the creation of a number of high-speed railways scattered across the U.S., much less one system connecting the coasts, requires key infrastructure and technology commitments in addition to plenty of money—commitments that not everyone is ready to make at this time.

"As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway," the President said Tuesday night. Yes and no.

In January 2010, the federal government announced how it would spend the $8 billion it allocated to high-speed rail development throughout the U.S. as part of the ARRA. A proposed Los Angeles-to-San Francisco corridor received $2.34 billion (to add to a $9-billion bond approved by voters in 2008). Among other key projects, the government allocated $1.25 billion for an 135-kilometer line dedicated to high-speed trains between Tampa and Orlando, $1.10 billion for rail improvements that would increase top speeds from 127 to 177 kilometers per hour between Chicago and St. Louis, $800 million for new and refurbished stations along the Madison-to-Milwaukee line in Wisconsin, and $400 million for Ohio’s Cincinnati-Columbus-Cleveland (3C) route.

Last month, however, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that $1.2 billion in high-speed rail funds originally designated for Wisconsin and Ohio would instead be redirected to railway projects (high-speed and normal-speed) in 14 different states. Wisconsin has suspended work under its existing high-speed rail agreement and the incoming governors in Wisconsin and Ohio have both indicated that they will not move forward to their ARRA high-speed rail funding. One reason cited is that the high-speed rails would be too expensive to operate. Unfortunately, spreading out the original $1.2 billion means that only a few states will receive a meaningful amount of money—California adds up to $624 million to its coffers whereas Indiana and Iowa are entitled to only about $365,000 and $310,000, respectively.

Florida’s high-speed rail project now appears to be in doubt as well as Governor Rick Scott says he is withholding support for the Tampa-to-Orlando line until he sees ridership studies that support the investment.

Still, it’s full-speed ahead on the West Coast and some areas of the Midwest. The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) last week announced it is setting aside $30 million in federal funding for property acquisition and railway development in the Los Angeles area. The CHSRA says it is committed to developing an 1,290-kilometer high-speed train system that will operate at speeds of up to 355 kilometers per hour, connecting the state’s urban centers, including the Bay Area, Fresno, Los Angeles and San Diego.

In the Chicago area, a cooperative agreement among the State of Illinois, Union Pacific Railroad and Amtrak announced on December 22 leaves officials there hopeful that Amtrak trains between Chicago and St. Louis could be traveling at 177 kilometers per hour on portions of the corridor as early as 2012.

Amtrak’s Acela service along the U.S.’s Northeast Corridor is the only passenger train line in the country that has exceeded the 177-kilometers-per-hour speed necessary to earn the Transportation Department’s "high-speed" classification. U.S. transportation officials acknowledge significant room for improvement. While high-speed trains in Europe travel as fast as 300 kilometers per hour, Amtrak’s Acela "chugs along" at an average speed between D.C. and New York of 133 kilometers per hour—"a snail’s pace by comparison," House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said Thursday at a hearing held in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal.

The hearing’s purpose was, among other things, to discuss ways to help Amtrak, which owns 584 of the Northeast Corridor’s more than 700 kilometers of track, more than double the speed of its trains and help keep the President’s promise of extending high-speed rail service to most of the country. Amtrak’s current plan to expand high-speed rail within the Northeast Corridor would require $117 billion and would not be completed until the year 2040, behind Obama’s timeframe.

2009 image of Anaheim ARTIC high-speed rail station area development, courtesy of the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA)





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  1. 1. Soccerdad 8:56 pm 01/27/2011

    Here we go again. First the government promoted the misallocation of capital into housing, causing the bubble that later burst. Now it’s high speed rail and solar and wind. If these things are good investments, private investors will figure it out and provide them. Misallocation of capital is always bad for the overall economy.

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  2. 2. ssco00 2:20 pm 01/28/2011

    Nearly a billion dollars to build or refurbish stations along the Milwaukee to Madison route. How do you spend that much just to build stations? The two cities are only about 75 miles apart. How many stations would be involved? This can’t possibly be a high speed train with such short distances between stops. The cost offered for Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati was only slightly more and would probably run about 250 miles.

    My real problem with all these fantasies is that they always want to go from downtown to downtown. Hardly anyone lives or even works downtown today. This is still 19th Century thinking at best. Of course the promoters, those who expect to pocket much of the loot, will claim that this will revitalize the downtown areas as well as their expensive convention centers and stadium projects did (not).

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