You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Rail Stimulus: Good Politics, But Don't Expect Bullet Trains

So the White House has finally announced the full list of where that $8 billion in stimulus money for high-speed rail is going. Here are the two big, headline-grabbing projects:

* Florida will get $1.25 billion for a high-speed line between Tampa and Orlando, which is expected to cost about $3.5 billion all told. Read Adie Tomer's critical take on the Tampa-Orlando project below.

* California will get $2.25 billion to help with a planned high-speed line between Anaheim and San Francisco. (Schwarzenegger was hoping for twice that amount—that line is expected to cost $42 billion in all).

And then there's a smorgasbord of lesser projects—for example:

* Illinois will get $1.1 billion to upgrade tracks so that three of the five trains running between Alton and Dwight can travel at speeds of 110 mph. (The state will also get a smaller amount to study a new high-speed corridor between St. Louis and Chicago.)

* Wisconsin is getting $810 million to upgrade trains between Madison and Milwaukee.

* Washington and Oregon are getting $590 million to improve the lines between Seattle and Portland.

And so on. See a full map here. Essentially, the money's getting sprinkled around in a fairly diffuse fashion. The only truly massive high-speed rail project that's edging close to reality is the Tampa-Orlando line, which could have trains up and running by 2014. The big California project, by contrast, still needs a lot of work—and funding.

And the smaller projects, while worthwhile, aren't going to lay a foundation for a serious high-speed rail network in the country. (Many of the proposed trains will only top out at 90 mph, such as a new line between Cleveland and Cincinnati.) We're not going to see, for instance, bullet trains rocketing between major U.S. cities at speeds of 150 mph or more, the way there are in Europe and China—at least not anytime soon, and not without bigger investments. See Elana Schor's report for more on this: She quotes Rep. John Mica (R-FL), a big HSR booster, who laments that the administration's not being ambitious enough.

Though granted, a vast new HSR network isn't the only goal of this spending. The administration was also seeking out projects that would create jobs in relatively short order. Plus, as my colleague Jon Cohn points out over e-mail, spending on rail seems like good politics—voters obviously know what trains are for, it's easy to see how it'll create jobs, and so forth. Indeed, it's sort of striking that there are so few other big, highly visible projects in the Recovery Act—there's little else that's comparable to, say, the Hoover Dam during the New Deal. (Then again, that might be an argument for taking another look at trains when Congress puts together a second jobs package this year.)

(Flickr photo credit: George Goodnight)