Just Asking: What Does $53 Billion Buy in High-Speed Rail?

Sal holds a Political Science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.
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All aboard Amtrak's Acela! (Photo: Larry Downing/Reuters)

In his State of the Union address, President Obama floated a fairly lofty green travel trial balloon—giving 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years.

Today, Vice President Biden—Amtrak’s #1 fan—told the country just how much the endeavor will cost: $53 billion.

These days, when so many states are struggling to diaper their fiscal incontinence, $53 billion is lot of cabbage.

Before we go all crazy over these pricey locomotives, let's train our brains on the plan’s basics.

What’s America return on the $53 billion investment?

Three inter-connected rail corridors. “Core express,” the spine of the national high-speed rail system, will speed electrified trains along their own tracks at between 125 to 250 mph. “Regional” (90 to 125 mph) and “emerging” (90 mph and under) corridors will supplement the core express.

How will the White House pay for it?

Biden didn’t say. Presumably, Obama will seek funding in future budgets or transportation bills.

How far behind the rest of the world is America in terms of high-speed rail?

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica has called Amtrak a “Soviet-style train system."

Japan's bullet trains that average 171 mph; riders travel door-to-door faster by rail than by plane over distances up to 500 miles.

"We cannot compromise. The rest of the world is not compromising," said Biden from Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, where he announced the plan.

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Got travel? Hop on a train. (Photo: U.S. Department of Transportation)

The deficit hawks in the GOP-controlled House will welcome this spending spree with open arms, right?

Yes, and they also passed cap-and-trade yesterday without dissent.

The GOP has targeted rail as part of their plan to cut domestic spending by 20 percent in 2011.

Is opposition to the plan based solely on funding?

No, there are plenty of logistical haters as well.

Writing in The Daily News, Michael Barone calls Obama’s plan a boondoggle because “…none of these high-speed projects are really high speed. Amtrak's Acela from Baltimore to Washington averages 84 miles per hour, and the Orlando-Tampa train would average 101 miles per hour. That makes the train uncompetitive with planes on trips of more than 300 miles.”

What do environmentalists think?

For the most part, the eco-sphere loves HSR—with one big but. To live up to its high-speed name, America's bullet trains will need their own tracks (they can't go fast if they're forced to brake for regional trains ahead of them on the rails). Building more tracks will disrupt or distroy natural habitats.

How many jobs will the plan create?

In June, the Economic Development Research Group released a study that analyzed the economic benefits of high-speed rail in four cities: Los Angeles, Chicago, Orlando, and Albany. Their conclusion? 145,000 permanent jobs would be added by 2035, totalling $7.8 billion in new wages.

Is Obama's plan perfect?

Perfection is, some might say, an unattainable ideal, but as the president himself argued in 2009: "...building a new system of high-speed rail in America will be faster, cheaper and easier than building more freeways or adding to an already overburdened aviation system—and everybody stands to benefit."

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