TIME Transportation

The Truth About Obama’s High-Speed Rail Program

Don't believe the New York Times or the train haters who cite it: High-speed rail is not an $11-billion failure.

The New York Times has declared President Barack Obama’s high-speed rail program a failure. “Despite the administration spending nearly $11 billion since 2009 to develop faster passenger trains, the projects have gone mostly nowhere,” America’s paper of record reported Aug. 6—in its news pages, not its opinion section. The story quickly rocketed into Republican talking points and conservative op-eds as fresh evidence of presidential haplessness.

But it’s wrong. The administration hasn’t spent anywhere near $11 billion. The projects haven’t gone mostly nowhere. There are legitimate questions about the high-speed rail initiative—and the administration’s hype has outstripped its ability to deliver in an era of divided government—but the public debate over the program has been almost completely detached from the reality on the ground.

Here’s the real story.

First of all, while Congress has appropriated $10.5 billion (not $11 billion) for high-speed rail, only $2.4 billion (definitely not $11 billion) of it has been spent to date, much of it on planning, design and other pre-construction work. The big construction spending has just started, and will continue through September 2017. Yet the Times and other critics are judging the program as if it had already blown through all its cash. The new meme on the right is that Obama has poured $11 billion into high-speed rail with nothing to show for it. In fact, less than one-fourth of the money has gone out the door. Just because funds have been appropriated and even “obligated” does not mean they’ve been spent, much less “poured.”

That fundamental mistake alone is enough to refute the basic thesis of the Times‘ gotcha story. But it also fuels other widespread public misperceptions about what the program has already achieved, what it’s supposed to achieve, and why it’s unlikely to achieve Obama’s grand vision for high-speed rail. The first sentence of the Times article noted U.S. passenger rail “still lags far behind Europe and China,” but that’s an absurd and annoyingly common straw man to use to slag the program.

Really, the initiative that Obama launched with his 2009 stimulus bill should have been called “higher-speed rail.” As I wrote a few years ago in TIME, it was partly about creating new routes for 200-mile-per-hour bullet trains like the ones already zipping around Europe and Asia, but it was mostly about improving slower-speed Amtrak routes so they would be incrementally faster and more reliable. America’s freight rail system is the envy of the world, but our passenger rail system is awful; the goal of the program was to make it less awful—a more realistic alternative to long drives and short flights.

So where did the Administration send the money? The big winners in the initial state-by-state competition were Florida and California, which had ambitious plans for new bullet trains. But after Rick Scott, a Tea Party Republican, was elected governor of Florida in 2010, he killed the Sunshine State’s Tampa-to-Orlando-to-Miami train and sent $2.4 billion back to Washington. That meant the far more daunting and less shovel-ready San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line would be America’s only new bullet-train project. After years of legal and political warfare, California is just now preparing to start laying track in the Central Valley.

The rest of the high-speed money is going to lower-speed projects where Amtrak trains share tracks with lumbering freight trains. But that doesn’t mean they’re bad projects. “They’re not as sexy, and maybe they don’t look like much, but they’re providing tangible benefits,” Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo said in an interview. Bridge and tunnel repairs, projects to upgrade and straighten tracks, sidings and double-tracking to help passenger trains pass freight cars, and other incremental improvements can all make rail travel more attractive.

And it’s happening. By 2017, the program will reduce trip times from Chicago to St. Louis by nearly an hour through upgrades that will increase top speeds from 79 to 110 miles per hour; Chicago to Detroit will get a similar boost. The Department of Transportation says it has already sliced off a half-hour between Springfield, Mass., and St. Albans, Vt., while completing projects to reduce delays around San Jose, San Diego, Fort Worth and Oklahoma City. It has extended Amtrak service for the first time to Brunswick, Maine, anchoring a thriving downtown revitalization program, and it’s bringing trains to the Illinois towns of Geneseo and Moline for the first time since 1978. It has renovated stations in St. Paul, Minn., and Portland, Ore, and it’s expanding service between Raleigh and Charlotte, where ridership has nearly tripled since 2005.

You need a pretty crimped sense of “somewhere” to argue that the money is going “mostly nowhere.”

One can certainly argue the money should have gone elsewhere. It’s nice that a new bridge and other Missouri projects have improved on-time performance between Kansas City and St. Louis from about 20 percent to 80 percent, but that’s still not a popular train route. Florida’s Scott and Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, both scuttled solid projects—the $45 million their states spent beforehand was the only inarguably wasted high-speed rail money—but Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, had a strong case for scuttling an absurdly slow-speed project in his state. Many critics have suggested Obama should have focused on the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, which is wildly popular—and profitable—even though it’s much slower than it should be.

In fact, the Administration has steered about $850 million to the Northeast Corridor. Szabo was in Trenton last week to tout a massive upgrade to an 80-year-old electrical system that will reduce delays and increase top speeds to 160 m.p.h. on America’s most traveled 23-mile stretch of track. The work will be a prototype for projects along the rest of the corridor, where rail has already replaced air as the dominant form of travel, even though logjams keep average speeds at 70 m.p.h.

Still, it’s true that the bullet-train rhetoric from Obama and the White House’s main train buff, Vice President Joe Biden, has not lived up to the bullet-train reality. It’s also true that the Administration’s spread-it-thin strategy, featuring incremental improvements in 32 states, is hard to justify in a vacuum. You need to walk before you can run, but it doesn’t make much sense to upgrade trains from slow speeds to semi-slow speeds if they’re never going to be able to compete with cars or planes. That’s why in 2011, Biden announced a new six-year, $53 billion plan to expand high-speed rail beyond the initial stimulus investments, a plan that would have built much more groundwork for a truly competitive national passenger rail network.

That plan, however, really has gone nowhere. Once Republicans took over the House, Congress stopped appropriating money for high-speed rail. Period. There was never any chance that bullet trains would be whizzing all over America by now, but the reason there’s no realistic prospect of that happening anytime soon has nothing to do with executive incompetence and everything to do with politics. And while I love the New York Times—even when it publishes ludicrous essays slagging my hometown—its validation of the “mostly nowhere” nonsense will help make sure America’s passenger rail system remains a global joke.

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