True High-Speed Rail Projects Unlikely To Be Fast-Tracked By Jobs Bill Funds

09/16/2011 02:54 pm ET | Updated Nov 16, 2011

When President Obama revealed his jobs bill last week, you could almost hear the high-fives from transportation advocates across the country.

If the Jobs Act were passed as-is -- which seems unlikely -- $50 billion would be spent on highways, mass transit, trains and planes. $10 billion more would be spent capitalizing a National Infrastructure Bank, one of the president's preferred methods of solving the jobs crisis.

Rail fans in particular had something to cheer. Last week the GOP-controlled House Transportation Committee voted to zero out federal money for local Amtrak routes. If that happens, railroads in the U.S. will become even more of an exotic Northeastern specialty.

In his Jobs Act, however, Obama put forth a sharply divergent vision: he proposed spending $4 billion to fund high-speed and intercity passenger rail and $2 billion more for Amtrak capital projects -- all of it within the next two years.

Those sums, said Petra Todorovich of America 2050, a national urban planning group, "would provide ample funding to make grants around the country again."

Todorovich sees plenty of projects in need. Simply modernizing our existing, slow-speed passenger rail system could easily consume all of the rail money in the American Jobs Act. What the jobs bill wouldn't do, however, is transform America's rail network by finishing any true high-speed rail projects that would resemble Japan's bullet trains or France's TGV.

Somewhat zippy trains like the Acela could see a boost, but finishing anything more ambitious would prove prohibitively expensive. Amtrak would like to upgrade the Northeast Corridor for high-speed rail, but that idea comes with a price tag of $117 billion. Florida's plan to connect Orlando and Tampa by high-speed rail, considered a top priority project by advocates, might have cost around $4 billion -- but Gov. Rick Scott (R) rejected the federal funds intended for it.

"What most high-speed advocates are looking for right now is to keep the funding going until we have a more favorable rail Congress," Todorovich said.

After rebukes from the Republican governors of Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin, only one "true" high-speed rail project, one that could travel at 225 mph, is still alive: California's.

That state, however, still has yet to break ground on the first segment of its high-speed rail project, which relies in large part on money from the 2009 stimulus. The state will spend billions of dollars on its first segment, but it needs billions more to create a stretch of track that hits enough cities to make running trains worthwhile.

High-speed rail, said Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, could potentially be "an enormously impactful project."

But just how transformative high-speed rail would be, he added, depends on "whether you're going to concentrate these funds on one corridor instead of spreading them around like peanut butter."

If California got enough of the $4 billion from the American Jobs Act, it might be able to create an initial operable segment -- North America's first true high-speed train. It wouldn't run between Los Angeles and San Francisco as the project ultimately aims to do, but it might connect places in-between like San Jose and Bakersfield. Whether that train could make money is another question. Critics have cast doubt on the project's ridership estimates, calling them far too optimistic.

A spokesperson for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, Rachel Wall, said she thought her state's project would "stand a very good chance at competing well for those funds" in the American Jobs Act.

But if President Obama was hoping to win over congressional Republicans, even those whose constituents could stand to benefit under his rail proposals, he may be out of luck.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) represents Bakersfield, where the high-speed train would make a stop. Construction work there could create jobs in Kern County, where unemployment is currently 14.4%. But McCarthy is still dead-set against high-speed rail.

“I continue to believe that California’s High-Speed Rail project is not viable," McCarthy said in a statement to The Huffington Post. "There are simply too many questions regarding the High-Speed Rail Authority’s business model and ridership projections that just don’t add up."

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