WASHINGTON -- In an auditorium inside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on a mid-April day in 2009, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood unveiled an ambitious plan to revamp America's rail infrastructure.
Public funds would be used to develop a system of high-speed passenger rail lines in 10 regions throughout the country, fundamentally revamping the way Americans conceive of travel.
"What we need, then, is a smart transportation system equal to the needs of the 21st century," said the president, "a system that reduces travel times and increases mobility, a system that reduces congestion and boosts productivity, a system that reduces destructive emissions and creates jobs."
More than four-and-a-half years later, even the biggest boosters of the president's vision for high-speed rail admit that it hasn't turned out as planned. Political pushback combined with the absence of a steady revenue stream has allowed for only modest gains.
Moreover, for every two steps forward it seems there is one step back. In late November, a judge for the Sacramento Superior Court blocked the state of California from accessing $8.6 billion in bonds for a bullet train project. The most promising high-speed-rail project in the country suddenly had the potential to turn, in the words of Joe Nation, a public finance professor at Stanford University, "into a real nightmare."
In response to the judge's ruling, the Department of Transportation is reconsidering what exactly it plans to do with the $3.3 billion in money it awarded to California to build a high-speed rail system. Under the terms of the agreement, it can take the money back and even force the state to repay the funds it has already spent. A DOT spokesperson told The Huffington Post that the agency is still reviewing the judge's decision, adding that the Federal Rail Administration remains "committed to continuing to work with the California High-Speed Rail Authority and to supporting the president’s vision for high-speed and intercity passenger rail nationwide."
LaHood, who left the Obama administration after the president's reelection, says he still believes that California's high-speed rail system will be built. But in an interview with The Huffington Post, even he, a congenial and optimistic advocate for infrastructure reform, acknowledged that achieving the vision that the president put forth on that April day would be tough given the current political climate.
"We were talking a couple years ago about the president’s vision for connecting 80 percent of the country in 25 years," LaHood said. "I think that is still a goal for President Obama, for the Department of Transportation, and frankly, for a lot of governors around the country."
"I think it can be done over the next 25 years ... [but] I’m not that optimistic about the House," he added. "I think the Senate is different, but at this point, I don’t think the House has a vision for passenger rail and that’s a problem."
When LaHood talks about a lack of vision in the House of Representatives, what he really means is an unwillingness to spend money. A shortage of funding, after all, is the main problem facing high-speed rail. When the president spoke in 2009, Congress had just allocated $8 billion to the initiative as part of the stimulus package. At the time, advocates argued that much more than even that historic investment was necessary. They were right, but with an important caveat.
Instead of a one-time down payment, what the administration needed was a guaranteed funding stream. The Interstate Highway System, started in 1956 and completed in 1992, was funded by an ongoing federal fuel tax, but Obama's high-speed rail plan depended on sympathetic lawmakers to keep writing checks.
They only wrote one more. Another $2.5 billion for high-speed rail and intercity passenger rail projects was included in the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2010. But as the Congressional Research Service noted, "Since then, no additional funding has been appropriated for this program." In fact, in the next such appropriations act, $400 million was rescinded from unobligated balances.
"The window opened by the president was partially shut by lawmakers in Congress," said Ed Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department. "The program is now at risk because we don't have adequate resources to meet the passenger rail challenge of the country."
Even before the first $8 billion allotment was spent, high-speed rail faced hurdles. Whether out of genuine concern over cost overlays or for the sake of political expediency, Republican governors across the country rejected federal funds for their states, the most notable example being Rick Scott of Florida. Within a year of Obama laying out a goal to connect 80 percent of the country by high-speed rail, it began to seem as if a patchwork system would be the best result he could get.
The subsequent investments were far from drops in the bucket. According to the Transportation Department, improvements to the existing Chicago to Detroit and Chicago to St. Louis lines have allowed trains to reach speeds of 100 miles per hour. By 2015, trips taken along those routes will be a full hour shorter. In the Pacific Northwest, meanwhile, 21 projects are being pursued that will result in a 50 percent increase in service between Seattle and Portland. And thanks to improvements in North Carolina, service on the Charlotte to Raleigh line will ultimately double.
As for rail infrastructure in general, the Obama administration has put $20 billion into funding projects across the country; 6,000 miles of rail corridor have been constructed or improved, as have 40 stations.
The problem is, much more is needed just to keep up with natural decay.
"It’s a 50-to-100-year-old system, and except for the freight rails -– the class one freight rails have put money back into their systems and kept them up –- transit and passenger rail is way down on the list in terms of really keeping up with the needs of modern-day infrastructure," LaHood said. "You look at the cars that are being used by even Amtrak today ... some haven’t been replaced in two or three decades. The infrastructure, the track, they do the best they can, but we know that many of these transit systems are decades old and aging and in terrible need of repair."
In its annual report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States' rail infrastructure a grade of C+. It was actually a higher grade than the D+ given to the nation's overall infrastructure, due largely to the fact that private investors have poured more than $75 billion into improving freight and passenger rail since 2009.
Going forward, those private-public partnerships will be integral to ensuring that rail infrastructure continues to be modernized in the decades ahead, LaHood acknowledged. But at this juncture, the private funds seem more likely to be there than the public ones. Over the past few years, Obama has repeatedly pushed for $50 billion investment in infrastructure projects across the board. Congress has rebuffed him each time.
Even the full $50 billion wouldn't be enough to meet the country's needs. The American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that a $3.6 trillion investment in American infrastructure is necessary by 2020. With respect to rail alone, the cost could be "a couple billion" of dollars to repair the current system and "hundreds of billions" of dollars to build a "rail system to the point were we can brag about having high-speed rail throughout the country," according to Pete Sklannik, former vice-chairman of ASCE's Transportation and Development Institute and served on ASCE's public transit committee.
It's cheaper to improve existing lines than to build new ones. But the trade-off is that faster trains can't run on older tracks. And with countries like Japan already investing in the newest form of rail technology –- magnetic levitation, which LaHood called "way too expensive" for the U.S. –- the nation is very much set to be left in the proverbial dust.
"It is going to take some really innovative thinking to make the investment attractive to the non-users and non-believers," Sklannik said. "And the other part is the government is really going to have to step up and treat this like they treated the interstate program or the space program and understand that this is an investment in our future."
"It has to be made attractive and it has to be made convincing," he added. "We're not there yet."