A national high-speed rail network would not only support tens of thousands of construction and manufacturing jobs, but it would get Americans out of their cars, revitalize struggling downtowns, and spare the environment millions of tons of 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 has gotten off the ground, and the one that has is in trouble.
For Obama, the political stakes are high going into the 2012 election. Republican front-runner Mitt Romney has accused him of putting too much faith in government to build the economy. The president, Romney says to the delight of Republican partisans, “does not know” how business, or the economy, works.
The plan that envisions bullet trains 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,” Obama said in announcing his vision for high-speed rail in April 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 as both the creation of Big Government and as economically unfeasible.
The objections in those three states left money to be redirected to a host of projects that promise to relieve bottlenecks and speed up traditional rail service in many parts of the country. In one case, the 285-mile trip between Chicago and Detroit will be reduced 30 minutes from the current 51
2 hours. But those improvements fall short of the transformative promise of high-speed rail.
House Republicans were also among those who dug in against Obama’s high-speed rail vision, saying that outside of select regions, it did not fit a sprawling, car-loving nation served by nearly 50,000 miles of interstate highways and an extensive air travel network.