President Barack Obama secured $8 billion in his 2009 economic stimulus package to start building toward the dream of true high-speed trains whisking passengers between major American cities. It was a paltry amount compared to the hundreds of billions it would actually take to fulfill that dream, but it was considered a serious down payment.
At the time, Obama’s transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, said, “I’m not a historian, but I know this: One of the legacies for this administration, for the president and the vice president, will be high-speed rail. That will be their transportation legacy.”
A decade later, little progress has been made on getting the country any closer to having the type of modernized train system popular in Europe and Asia.
On Tuesday the dream got its harshest blow yet: California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced he was scaling back plans for high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco. That stretch seemed the most likely to succeed. It’s six hours by car without traffic and 90 minutes by air, so transportation that split the difference would in theory attract riders. Even voters in 2008 agreed through a ballot initiative to let the state buy up $10 billion in bonds for that corridor.
But Newsom during his State of the State address said the project as planned was too costly for the state and so for now they’d just be completing a shorter leg through the Central Valley so as to not squander the $3.5 billion the state received from the federal government for the project.
"Abandoning high-speed rail entirely means we will have wasted billions and billions of dollars with nothing but broken promises, partially filled commitments and lawsuits to show for it,” Newsom said. “And by the way, I am not interested in sending $3.5 billion in federal funding that was allocated to this project back to Donald Trump.”
There are many reasons experts have been dubious that America would successfully build high-speed rail. For one, it’s tremendously expensive, and even if the government could leverage private money, it would still require a large infusion of taxpayer funding. Right now Congress can barely agree on how to maintain our transportation systems, let alone revolutionize them. Then there’s Americans’ obsession with the automobile in most places outside the Northeast. There are also questions of how to get towns to allow you to build track through them without adding a stop there. But when you add too many stops it slows down the train as it approaches the station and leaves, which is part of the reason Amtrak’s Acela between Washington and Boston only hits true high speed for a portion of the ride.
But rail enthusiasts have always been on the side of, if you build it, they will come. They believe that if you give people an alternative to the hassles of flying and driving that gets them between major cities comfortably and quickly, then people will ride it.
But another issue has arisen that hinders high-speed rail progress: partisan politics. While once a vision shared by members of both parties (with varying ideas of how to pay for it), it’s now lumped in with other progressive ideals like universal health care and free college.
When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) announced the policy details of a Green New Deal, a sweeping plan to address climate change and income inequality, it included revitalizing the idea of building the more economically friendly high-speed rail. But the freshman congresswoman got ahead of herself and put out a FAQ on her website that included this line: “build out high-speed rail at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary,” immediately providing fodder for conservatives to bash it. Ocasio-Cortez took down the FAQ and has since said that of course rail couldn’t supplant all air travel.
At a rally in El Paso on Monday night, President Trump said proponents of the Green New Deal want to shut down “a little thing called air travel.” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the third in line in House GOP leadership, mocked, “I guess that means our colleagues from California are going to be riding their bicycles back home to their constituents.”
After the news about California’s project, the House Republican Conference sent around an email with the subject line: “Socialist fantasy gets a dose of reality.”
LaHood, who spearheaded Obama’s vision for high-speed rail corridors around the country, said Tuesday night in an interview that Newsom was being “shortsighted” and called it “very disappointing.”
“Democrats at least in the House should step up and make it an infrastructure priority. In the absence of that leadership, high-speed rail is probably at a dead end at the moment,” he said.
So what about what LaHood said about it being Obama’s legacy?
“It can’t be his legacy if it doesn’t get carried out,” he said.