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High-Speed Rail Is Not Dead

A true high-speed rail network may be years away. But despite some setbacks, plans for fast trains are moving ahead around the country.

High-speed rail does not exist in the U.S. And the fact that the new congressional budget deal completely eliminated high-speed rail funding for 2011 may lead many to believe it never will. Who can forget the headline-grabbing declarations by governors Rick Scott of Florida, John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin that high-speed rail is a no-go in their states? Between their refusal of federal funds, the political posturing on Capitol Hill and the endless debates in the editorial pages of newspapers, it’s easy to get the sense that high-speed rail is dead.

But while the fast train indeed has been dealt a serious blow, the fact remains that it’s coming: Illinois will spend more than half a billion dollars this year on upgrading existing tracks to accommodate speeds of 110 mph, while California officials plan to break ground next year on the $42 billion Los Angeles-to-San Francisco high-speed rail link. Notwithstanding the congressional budget cuts, there was still $2 billion up for grabs this year -- thanks to Florida. Twenty-four governors -- 12 Democrats, 11 Republicans and one Independent -- applied for that money. The Federal Railroad Administration dedicated the $2 billion to 15 states and Amtrak in May.

The path toward a high-speed rail network started in 2009, when President Obama allocated $8 billion in stimulus funding to rail projects, followed by $2.5 billion in 2010. Projects to identify high-speed rail corridors and build up existing rail lines to support these future networks are already under way in 32 states and the District of Columbia.

Below is a closer look at the status of five lines. This is by no means all-inclusive, but gives an overall picture of where high-speed rail stands today.

Price estimates based on data from the Federal Railroad Administration; Amtrak; Illinois Governor's Office, North Carolina Department of Transportation.

Other sources: Census 2010; Environmental Law & Policy Center; Washington State DOT; California High-Speed Rail Authority


Price Tag: $117 billion
Miles of Track: 445
Est. Population Served: 37.7 million
Status: Many argue that there is no better candidate for true high-speed rail than the Northeast Corridor. With a ridership that totaled about 10.4 million in 2010, it is the busiest and most highly developed rail corridor in the U.S. But when Obama handed out $8 billion for high-speed rail in 2009, he gave very little to the Northeast. Part of the reason is that until this year, the Northeast Corridor was not designated a high-speed rail corridor by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The new designation means that Amtrak can apply directly for high-speed rail funding -- as opposed to states applying individually for their segment of the line. In May, Amtrak and several Northeast states were awarded $795 million to upgrade some of the most heavily-used sections of the corridor. The investments will increase speeds from 130 to 165 mph on critical segments.

North Carolina

Price Tag: $623 million
Miles of Track: 174
Est. Population Served: 5.6 million
Status: After months of wrangling with Norfolk Southern Railway, the freight company that controls both passenger and freight train traffic on North Carolina’s railway, the state is moving forward with plans to put faster, more frequent and more reliable passenger trains on the tracks between Charlotte and Raleigh. The initial investment will get the trains up to speeds of 90 mph. The ultimate goal, however, will be to connect the Charlotte-Raleigh line to Richmond and Washington, D.C. The state received $4 million toward that goal in May.


Price Tag: $1.4 billion
Miles of Track: 284
Est. Population Served: 13 million
Status: Illinois is the only state with shovels in the ground. Last fall, it began upgrading the existing track between Chicago and St. Louis to handle 110-mph trains by 2012. More than $770 million is being spent in 2011 to move Illinois one step closer to faster trains and improved service along what could become the nation’s demonstration project for high-speed rail. Interestingly, Michigan is planning a high-speed rail line connecting Chicago and Detroit. It just received more than $199 million in federal funds to rehabilitate track and conduct environmental impact studies. Wisconsin’s Gov. Walker, after refusing federal money, requested funding to begin work on tracks that would connect Chicago and Milwaukee via high-speed rail. Wisconsin was left out of the latest high-speed rail funding allocation in May.

Pacific Northwest

Price Tag: $756.5 million
Miles of Track: 467
Est. Population Served: 8.3 million
Status: The passenger rail line between Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C., is one of the best maintained lines in the U.S.: Nearly $1 billion in capital and operating funds has been invested in the corridor since 1994. The long-term vision is to create a dedicated high-speed track where trains will operate at up to 150 mph on 13 daily round trips between Seattle and Portland, eventually expanding to include Eugene, Ore., and Vancouver. To lay the groundwork for the line, work will begin this summer to increase speeds on existing track and boost rail-line capacity.


Price Tag: $42 billion
Miles of Track: 432
Est. Population Served: 35 million
Status: California is building an extensive 800-mile high-speed rail system that will consist of 24 stations and operate at speeds of up to 220 mph. Initially running from San Francisco to Los Angeles via the Central Valley, and later to Sacramento and San Diego, trains will travel the 432 miles between L.A. and San Francisco in less than 2 hours and 40 minutes. Today, that route can take up to 9 hours. Initial construction will begin in the Central Valley, the backbone of the system, in 2012.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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