09/22/2011 03:30 pm ET | Updated Nov 22, 2011

China High-Speed Rail Offers Few Lessons For U.S. Beyond Growth Potential

President Obama's trip to the Brent Spence Bridge on Thursday points to the difficulties inherent in getting specific about infrastructure spending: no single project is without its drawbacks, and even some of the most necessary may be years away from shovel-ready.

Perhaps nowhere are those political liabilities more apparent than in the president's ongoing push for high-speed rail, for which he has proposed budgeting an additional $4 billion in the American Jobs Act.

In his State of the Union address at the beginning of this year, President Obama called for America to realize the "Sputnik moment," noting that "China is building faster trains and newer airports."

At the time Obama gave that speech, China's high-speed rail network was the envy of the world. Then, on July 23, a horrifying collision between two high-speed trains near the city of Wenzhou killed 40 people and injured scores more. The country cracked down on public criticism of the crash, but investors are fleeing from the $330 million China's rail ministry racked up in debt while building the system.

"The only mystery," the Washington Post editorialized in response, "is why people in the West who should have known better looked at high-speed rail in China and saw a model for the United States -- instead of an accident waiting to happen."

But China's problems haven't stopped the president from using its rail network as an example of what a country -- even one with 16 percent of the U.S.'s GDP per capita -- can accomplish with enough political will. Speaking in support of his American Jobs Act on Sept. 14, the president said,"At a time when countries like China are building high-speed rail lines and gleaming new airports, we've got over a million unemployed construction workers."

That comparison, said Phineas Baxandall of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, has its "upsides and downsides."

"The upside is that China continues to have much faster economic growth than we do, partly because they're spending much more aggressively on 21st century transportation like high-speed rail," Baxandall noted.

The president has presented high-speed rail as a vision of what the United States could accomplish, on both technological and economic levels, if it dreamed big. The International Monetary Fund projects that China will grow at a rate of 9.5 percent in 2011, far more than the U.S.'s paltry 1.5 percent.

At the same time, Baxandall added, "there's a lot that China does in a way where it sometimes thinks about the human consequences second and the rapid development first -- we shouldn't follow that path."

For better or worse, similar rapid development seems nowhere near on the horizon in the U.S. In part because of the U.S.'s much more stringent planning process, and in part because of congressional hurdles, progress on high-speed rail here has been much slower. California's project, the centerpiece of Obama's high-speed rail push thus far, has yet to break ground.

Moreover, China and America face very different transportation problems. China is, of course, still an emerging economic power -- which gives the president's references to its leapfrogging network of bullet trains their rhetorical force. But it also makes a more detailed comparison between the pluses and minuses of fast trains for the two countries difficult. China's middle class is growing, and most people in the country haven't yet adopted cars. The U.S.'s freight rail network is arguably the best in the world, but China's is lacking, and the high-speed trains are being built in part to open up capacity for freight trains on legacy lines.

"There is really not much to compare the pair," said Xianfang Ren, a Beijing-based economic analyst with business information service IHS. "China is not a motorized country yet."

Another area where comparisons don't make much sense: there's little chance in the immediate future that the U.S. will create anywhere the debt China has on high-speed tracks. By the same token, job creation from high-speed rail may be elusive.

Since the federal Department of Transportation started handing out high-speed rail funds from the Recovery Act in January 2010, about $5 billion has been awarded to projects going more than 125 mph, 1/60th of what China has spent so far. In Fiscal Year 2012, similar projects may get $100 million at best -- more or less a placeholder to encourage further planning.