by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
President Obama is entering his final year in office with one of his most ambitious first-term promises — a nationwide network of high speed railways — largely unfilled.
Obama spoke frequently in his first term about developing the network.
He imagined a U.S. rail system that would rival the interstate highway system, citing similar train systems in European countries that are widely popular.
Obama included $8 billion in his 2009 economic stimulus package to jump-start the high-speed rail program in the U.S.
But seven years later, Obama has little to show for the effort.
His stimulus offer was rebuffed by Republican governors in states including Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida, who rejected the money.
The best chance of a new federally funded railway in is California, but a line there that would link San Francisco, Los Angeles and other major California cities has been beset by delays and funding problems.
Meanwhile, private companies are considering the development of high-speed railways in Texas — and Florida.
A company called All Aboard Florida is planning to open a privately owned high-speed railway between Miami and Orlando in 2018.
“Vacationing, doing business, commuting or otherwise traveling between Orlando and Miami is about to get easier,” the company said of its forthcoming rail service, which covers a part of the route was supposed to be connected to Obama’s initial Tampa-to-Orlando proposal.
“All Aboard Florida proudly introduces Brightline, an express train service that will provide state-of-the-art fast, safe, relaxing travel in one of the most populous and visited regions in the United States,” the company continued.
Obama spoke similarly highly of the potential for high-speed rail in the congested Interstate 4 corridor in his first State of the Union address in 2010.
“There’s no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains, or the new factories that manufacture clean energy products,” Obama said at the time, citing the ill-fated high-speed railway between Tampa and Orlando that never got built.
“Tomorrow, I’ll visit Tampa, Fla., where workers will soon break ground on a new high-speed railroad funded by the Recovery Act,” Obama continued then. “There are projects like that all across this country that will create jobs and help move our nation’s goods, services, and information.”
A little over a year later, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) rejected $2.4 billion in federal dollars for the project, citing concerns about the cost of operating the trains once the federal money for construction ran out.
Republicans in Congress have expressed similar concerns about the California high-speed rail project, which has received more than $3 billion in federal dollars.
“Not only do they lack a business plan, but they continue to waste taxpayer dollars without being held accountable,” Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) said about the California high-speed rail proposal in an interview with The Hill.
“They’re decades out [from offering passenger service],” continued Denham, who has repeatedly offered legislation to deny additional federal funding for the California project.
Denham said the private sector’s interest shows the future for rail is not with the federal government — and likely not for passengers in California.
“It shows there is a future for high-speed rail in the U.S.,” he said. “It needs to be in areas where there is proven ridership numbers and proven routes and speeds. California has no proven ridership numbers, and they continue to blow through deadlines.”
Obama administration officials have said they are still bullish on the potential for high-speed rail in the U.S., arguing that the private sector interest shows the wisdom of the president’s aggressive push.
“You still see a strong appetite and strong activity for high-speed rail in this country,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told The Hill on Friday, citing the projects in the Florida, Texas and California. “Inch-by-inch, the country moves closer to seeing high-speed service happen, so I’m very confident that the right things are happening.”
Obama has largely been silent on the fate of his original high-speed rail proposals in recent years, focusing instead on cities that have built cheaper intracity light rail and streetcar systems, such as Minneapolis, Charlotte, Dallas, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.
Foxx has pushed states to take steps to boost speed on existing rail lines outside of Amtrak’s Northeast routes. He has also pushed for a proposed route between Richmond, Va., and Raleigh, N.C., that backers believe can be connected to railways that run to Washington.
The transportation secretary said Friday the U.S. will eventually have to increase its use of railways as the nation’s population grows, whether the federal government or private companies are picking up the bill for construction.
“We can’t have the kind of mobility all of us are used with a road-dependent transportation system,” he said. “We always will need roads. Roads are critically important. But America needs a multi-modal approach to transportation and intercity passenger rail is a critical part of that.”
All Aboard Florida is betting that the Obama administration is right about the viability of high-speed rail in places like the Sunshine State, which remain car-dependent.
“Driving from Miami to Orlando takes about four hours,” the company said. “All Aboard Florida’s Brightline train will allow passengers to cover that same distance in about three hours — while reading, relaxing or simply enjoying a more productive way to travel.”
A company called Texas Central Partners is similarly planning to build a high-speed railway between Dallas and Houston it is calling a “transformation project.”
The company has touted the fact that it is not relying on federal funding to construct the railway, which is projected to run on a route that is 240 miles long.
“We are a Texas-based private company, employing a market-led approach. Unlike other high-speed rail projects, we are backed by private investors, not public funds,” the company says in a post on its website.
“Texas Central is developing a new high-speed passenger rail system that will connect Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston using a proven, world-class technology that will provide a travel time of less than 90 minutes.”
Foxx predicted Friday there would be more private companies considering building rail lines in places where it made sense to provide an alternative to auto travel.
“I think as people find themselves in tighter and tighter spaces and congestion gets worse and worse and the task of maintaining the systems we have gets harder and harder, the business case is going to make itself over time,” he said.
“I think the question is how quickly we realize enough to build on the efforts that are already ongoing.”