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Obama has handed out the first round of grants to try to promote rail in the U.S.  (Source: Progress Ohio)

Critics, though, accuse the administration of handing pork barrel grants to Amtrak to improve aging lines.  (Source: AP Photo)

House Republicans were broadly opposed to the rail grants.  (Source: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder broke with his party, becoming the only Republican governor to put his weight behind a rail plan. Michigan is receiving funds to upgrade a line between Chicago and Detroit.  (Source: Flickr/RickForMI)
Grants aim to usher in new era of transportation, but disappointingly fall back on outdated technology

Over a century ago, the U.S. government gave land and loans to railroad companies that would amount to billions in today's money.  The U.S. subsequently transformed into an increasingly influential superpower.  Today, in the modern era, the government is looking to use similar incentives to yet again push our nation's transportation efforts forward.

The Obama administration this week announced $2B USD in grants, marking the first round in a program looking to push high-speed rail across the U.S.

I. Great Expectations

With increasing fuel costs being witnessed, rail is viewed as an increasingly attractive alternative to air travel.  While the new program looks to ease the country forward towards high-speed rail, it still illustrates how far behind its international peers the U.S. is in terms of public transport.

Only $300M USD of the $2B USD will be applied towards the construction of true high-speed rail that is present across much of Europe and Asia.  That money will go towards creating a 220 mph line between two of California's major metropolitan areas -- San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The remaining money will be applied to increasing speeds of standard lines.  The government hopes to boost a Washington-Boston-New York line from 135 mph to 160 mph with the help of $795M USD in grants.  Another $404M USD will be applied to upgrades to a 110 mph track between Detroit and Chicago.  That money will be applied to boosting speeds along portions of the route, upgrading signals, and modernizing the track.

The applications of the remainder of the funding are diverse.  Funding will go to building a train station in Ann Arbor, Mich.  Texas gets money to conduct engineering studies.  Rhode Island will be spending funds on improvements to its train platforms.  And Washington State will be looking to build a short stretch of elevated track.

II. High Speed, Where Art Thou?

Some politicians on both sides of the aisle are less than thrilled with the final results of the program -- even among those who support high-speed rail.  They complain that hardly any money is going towards actual high speed rail, with most going directly to pork-barrel projects by rail giant Amtrak (The National Passenger Railroad Corporation), who holds much lobbying power in Congress.

Rep. John L. Mica (R-Florida), who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, stated, "Once again, the administration has scattered funding to numerous slower-speed rail projects, and allowed Amtrak to hijack 21 of the 22 grants."

Part of Rep. Mica's complaints may arise out of disappointment at not receiving funding.  Florida lost its funding for rail projects when Governor Rick Scott (R) cut matching funding to a high speed rail line from Orlando to Tampa.

Representatives from states that are getting funded seem much more enthusiastic.  States Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), "We must take our passengers off the short-run airplanes. No one in a properly functioning transportation environment should take a plane from New York to Washington, or for that matter from Boston to Washington."

To an extent Rep. Nadler is correct -- the funding will make a seemingly positive impact.  For example a $295M USD to the much-used Long Island Rail Road in N.Y. State will allow trains to bypass the Harold Interlocking, a busy junction in the New York City borough of Queens.  This in turn will decrease delays and increase the speed of rides.

On the other hand the funding fails to fix other notorious problem spots like two Amtrak-owned tunnels under the Hudson River, which are aging and congested, or an ancient 100-year-old stretch of line in New Jersey.  Both areas were originally slotted for repair or upgrades, but the plans fell through when Gov. Chris Christie, a New Jersey Republican, pulled out.  He complained the matching funding could put his state in danger of budget overruns.

The dispute has largely boiled down to partisan bickering.  Rep. Tom McMillin (R-Michigan) complained about his state's project, commenting, "If President Obama and Congress insist on piling more debt on our kids and grandkids, they should at least let us decide how to spend it. We need to fill potholes and improve roads, not shave 50 minutes off a train ride from Detroit to Chicago."

Gov. Scott and Gov. Christie stand together with two other Republican governors – embattled Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisconsin), who ditched $810M USD in funding for a high speed line between Madison-to-Milwaukee, and Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio), who rejected a $404M USD proposal to connect Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus with a slower train line.

All four governors scrapped projects that had been set into motion by their Democratic predecessors.  

Michigan governor Rick Snyder thus far has been the only Republican governor to back a rail project, having done so after much deliberation

III. Ugly Results

"If they don't want it, we need it. We'll take it," complains Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York), "Florida's loss is New York and New Jersey's gain."

That may be true to some extent, but the partisan division on the issue of rail is creating a situation where everyone loses.

At the start of Barack Obama's presidency in 2008 only a handful of states were looking for high speed rail funding versus many states fishing for traditional rail funding.  While the high-speed projects arguably bore more merit than bloated budgets for traditional rail, ironically they were some of the first to go do to partisan politics.

The result is the kind of bastard child program that will frustrate many.  Republicans, some Democrats, and high speed rail supporters alike will wonder why so much money is being poured into Amtrak while so little is being applied to actual high speed rail at a time when the U.S. is already so far behind.

The speed of traditional lines is fundamentally limited, even if congested sections of track can be upgraded.  Current generation Acela trains -- used by Amtrak -- can only reach a top speed of 150 mph.  And currently such speeds are only available in select sections of track in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.  Upgrades to the track and power lines may increase speeds, put that fundamental ceiling will not be able to be broken with current generation engines.

Amtrak is promising that next generation Acela trains will reach 160 mph.  But that's still drastically slower than the 200 mph + trains in Asia and Europe.

"[Traditional rail travel is] too much of a waste of time," comments Matthew Konopka, a 30-year-old economist from Washington and frequent flyer to Boston, "I would be doubtful that they'd ever be able to get it fast enough."

Other citizens are slightly kinder to Amtrak.  States Jim Moeller, a 46-year-old geographer from Fredericksburg, Va. who rides the line between Washington and New York monthly, "I actually do business on the train. It's a lot nicer than an airplane. [The new funding is] throwing money at something that's actually a good thing."

America's greatest economic rival China is experiencing struggles of its own in its ambitious deployment of high-speed rail.  In China's case laying the rail isn't the problem -- it's dealing with corruption and quality control issues that endanger passenger safety and budgets.  

The U.S. is grappling with its own unique problem -- the fact that partisan bickering has killed the majority of high-speed rail and the fact that it's throwing lots of money at an aging rail system that -- no matter how you slice it -- is far behind modern high-speed designs.

It remains to be seen whether either project will truly leave the station and reach its intended stop.





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