The Great American Train Debate

Years before frenzied rallies, red hats and alternative facts, there was another American president with a signature infrastructure plan: Barack Obama. In April 2009, President Obama unveiled a blueprint for building high-speed rail systems in ten different parts of the country.

“These efforts will save money by untangling gridlock, saving lives by improving our roads, and save or create 150,000 jobs,” said the then-new president, just under four months into his first term. “So far we’re ahead of schedule, we’re under budget and adhering to the highest standards of transparency and accountability.”

The announcement came on the heels of California’s approval of Proposition 1(A) in November of 2008 also known as the High-Speed Rail Act. The vote earmarked $9.95 billion in state bonds to pay for a high-speed rail system connecting Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco. These trains would get riders from L.A. to downtown San Francisco in less than three hours, at a cheaper cost than a flight.

Those were better days for the American bullet train – things haven’t gone exactly to plan since then.

High-Speed Trains Go Off the Rails

Massive Republican victories in the 2010 midterms put the brakes on plans for a national high-speed rail system. Newly-elected GOP governors in Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio all killed projects for bullet trains in their states. John Kasich, as governor-elect of Ohio, summed it up best: “That train is dead.” And in California, obstacles began cropping up almost as soon as the vote passed. A series of lawsuits beginning in 2011 and a complex process for evaluating and purchasing private property led to years of delay – ground wasn’t broken on the project until 2015.

High-speed rail took another PR hit this past April when the California High Speed Rail Authority announced that the cost of the first segment in the Central Valley region would be around $12.4 billion – $1.8 billion higher than expected, and more than double the authority’s original estimate of $6 billion. Search the issue for more than a few seconds on Google and it’s easy to come across vocal opposition to the rail plan.

“Give me and every other California taxpayer a break, and just kill this project right now,” said one Los Angeles Times reader in a letter to the editor. The Orange County Register called it the “bullet train fiasco.” Of course the most prominent opponent of the project is our critic-in-chief, who has turned the rail project into a battering ram to attack one of his favorite targets — coastal liberals.

“California has been forced to cancel the massive bullet train project after having spent and wasted many billions of dollars … We want that money back now. Whole project is a ‘green’ disaster!” Trump tweeted in February. And in May, his administration canceled t$929 million in federal grants for California’s high-speed rail that had been awarded by Congress but not dispersed.

But for bullet train advocates, hope remains. Gavin Newsom supported the project as Lieutenant Governor under Jerry Brown, and now that he’s been promoted to the top office in the Golden State, he’s continued the charge – though he did temper expectations by admitting in January that the project’s original scope from L.A. to Sacramento is unrealistic.

Newsom called the Federal Railroad Administration’s decision to pull the money “illegal” and “a direct assault on California,” promising to fight the decision in court. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has also voiced support for the project, calling Trump’s decision “deeply concerning” and reiterating that “California remains committed to completing a statewide high-speed rail system.

Can We Move on From the Car?

Proponents of high-speed rail view America’s love for driving as an unsustainable addiction, forcing us to spend big on automotive infrastructure even as problems with traffic and greenhouse gases worsen.

“This is something we really need to do as a country,” said Rick Harnish, Executive Director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. “Our current way of doing business is everyone is forced to drive, except in a few cases … we’re spending gobs and gobs of money on highways and parking lots. Having all that parking makes it difficult to have an efficient, pleasant place to live.”

“In 2014, the federal government spent $165 billion on highways alone – more than we spend on housing and urban development, aviation, mass transit and railroads combined.”

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 87 percent of daily commuters in America use private vehicles, and traffic jams are worse than they’ve ever been. A report from the Texas Transportation Institute found that congestion in 85 of the largest metropolitan areas went up almost every single year between 1982 and 2003, despite large investments in highways. In 2014, the federal government spent $165 billion on highways alone – more than we spend on housing and urban development, aviation, mass transit and railroads combined.

Harnish clarified that high-speed rail and automobile travel aren’t mutually exclusive – he pointed out that increases in rail service will help ease rush hour traffic and make life easier for taxis and rideshare drivers. “The opposition will say I’m telling you [that] you can’t drive,” Harnish said with a chuckle. “I’m not saying that. You can drive, I’m just saying you shouldn’t be forced to drive.”

High-speed rail advocates like Harnish point to the long-term resilience of the project as a sign that the bullet train will eventually come to America.

"There’s clearly a desire for this. There are two separate projects in Texas, a project that they’re looking at from Portland to Seattle … despite all those hassles and challenges [in California], the project is moving forward. That tells me that this is something people really want,” Harnish said.

The public desire may be there, but ten years after the first proposal for U.S. high-speed rail, there is still much work to be done before Americans can catch a 200 MPH train and ride it into the future of transit.