The Department of Transportation is to distribute the money to embryonic high-speed rail projects around the country and to Amtrak, the national passenger rail service, to develop high-speed technology.
The government isn’t wasting time. By next month, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is required to issue a strategic plan detailing how DOT will use the $8 billion. By June, his department is required to tell states how to apply for grants.
Eleven proposed high-speed rail corridors on the West Coast, Texas, the Great Lakes states, the Southeast, Florida and the Northeast will be vying for a piece of the stimulus money.
As large as it sounds, $8 billion wouldn’t begin to design and construct a true high-speed system in which rails are dedicated to high-speed trains. The California system alone would cost about $50 billion to complete.
That “and to Amtrak” line is key. Heritage fellow Ron Utt explains:
In 1991 legislation was enacted to permit the Federal Railroad Administration to designate 10 high speed rail corridors. Because of the exceptionally high costs and limited benefits of HSR, nothing has ever been done to get anything underway on any of these corridors–until now, that is.
The definition of HSR, as applied to those in European and Asian countries, is passenger rail service that averages more than 150 miles per hour, which can only be achieved on very expensive, dedicated lines that serve only HSR. Since no such lines exist in the U.S., any HSR would have to first acquire a right of way, buy the land in it, lay the very costly track, and buy the new equipment.
Under the circumstances, the $8 billion is woefully short of what is needed to complete a single system, and the President and Congress know it, which is why the $8 billion should be viewed as little more than an amuse-bouche to keep the nation’s influential rail hobbyists happy and content. Indeed, the law recognizes the folly of the aspiration by allowing the money also to be spent on intercity passenger rail service (Amtrak) and “congestion” grants. And the act includes no time limits on when these projects are to be completed; it states only that the money will remain available for three and one-half years.