When the Obama administration rolled out its initial investment to create a high-speed rail system across the U.S. in January, the program was hailed as a pivotal piece of the most significant upgrade of the nation's transportation system since the interstate highway network.
But the program - along with the jobs it could create, environmentalists' desires to ease auto pollution and some travelers' hopes of eventually hopping a fast train in the nation's heartland - may have hit a speed bump after this month's elections.
Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio, each awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds, have incoming Republican governors who have vowed to kill their intercity rail projects or are threatening to do so if they determine the projects will become a drain on taxpayers.
The entire program is likely to come under review when Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., presumptive chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, assumes the leadership post next year.
"He wants to see successful high-speed rail in the United States," Justin Harclerode, spokesman for the committee's Republican members, says of Mica.
But, Harclerode says, "(Mica) has felt all along that we should really focus on high-speed rail efforts in (a) very limited number of regions, and do it in the places that can offer the most transportation benefit to that region and to the country. Essentially, do it in places where it makes sense."
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The pushback is causing concern among some public transportation advocates, environmentalists and business owners who say that canceling the projects could hurt the climate, deprive recession-battered regions of jobs and push the U.S. further behind nations in Europe and Asia, where bullet trains are the norm.
It's "a job creator, and it's a new industry - a 21st century form of transportation," says Joseph Shelhorse, vice president of membership services for the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, a non-profit advocacy organization. "Taking four or five hours to travel by jet (when) high-speed rail can take you from city center to city center in an hour and 20 minutes, there's really no comparison."
The U.S. Transportation Department also remains committed to the effort. "We recognize that there is an incredible demand for high-speed rail dollars around the country," says spokeswoman Olivia Alair.
Burden or benefit?
The administration announced the first round of awards in January, doling out $8 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to help pave the way for 13 major high-speed rail programs and related projects spanning 31 states. An additional $2.4 billion was allotted in October.
Florida received one of the most significant amounts, getting an initial award of up to $1.25 billion to link Tampa to Orlando with 84 miles of new track.
State officials estimate construction would mean 5,000 jobs. And with a projected completion date of 2014, trains would ultimately be able to travel up to 168 mph, trimming travel time between the cities from about an hour and a half by car to less than 60 minutes. Last month, the state was awarded an additional $800 million.
But Gov.-elect Rick Scott is concerned the project could be more of a burden than a benefit to taxpayers.
"He is opposed to investing in projects that have little or no return on investment to the state," says spokesman Trey Stapleton. "After looking at a final feasibility study on high-speed rail projects and determining what the state would be responsible for, he will assess the state's funds and determine if there is adequate return on investment for the taxpayers' money."
Other governors have said they'll quash their rail projects.
Ohio Gov.-elect John Kasich wrote President Obama asking that the $400 million awarded to his state for a new rail corridor stretching from Cincinnati to Cleveland go instead for other projects, such as improvements to roads.
"Give us the money so we can use it for things we need, like infrastructure, roads and freight trains, and if you're not going to allow us to do that, send it back to the Treasury Department to reduce the deficit," says Rob Nichols, spokesman for the incoming governor.
In addition to worries that the tab for building the project will be more than the money that's been allotted, Nichols says the train line will cost taxpayers $17 million a year to operate. And with the trains traveling 39 mph on average, though they could reach a maximum of 79 mph, he says commuters would likely prefer to travel by car.
"Saddling taxpayers with an additional financial burden is not the solution at this point," says Nichols, noting that the state is facing an $8 billion budget shortfall. "We need job creation by making Ohio business-friendly ... not by a 39 mph train that no one's going to ride."
Wisconsin received more than $820 million for a rail line between Milwaukee and Madison, the state's two biggest metro areas, which currently have no intercity passenger train service. The money would also go for enhancements to service to Chicago as well as planning for an eventual rail link to Minnesota.
Gov.-elect Scott Walker says it won't happen.
"The Madison-Milwaukee train line is dead," John Hiller, Walker's transition director, said in a statement. "Wisconsin taxpayers will not be on the hook for multimillion-dollar ongoing operating subsidies, because of Gov.-elect Walker's efforts to stop this boondoggle."
Advocates for the projects aren't giving up. Outgoing Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland says he will not stop a rail project that could lead to 16,000 jobs in his state, despite receiving a letter from Kasich asking him to cancel all engineering and planning contracts connected to the effort.
"Gov. Strickland is firm that he doesn't want to return Ohio's $400 million while he's still governor," says Kelly Schlissberg, Strickland's spokeswoman. If the "governor-elect wants to return the money once he becomes governor, that's certainly his decision, but Gov. Strickland feels very strongly that this is a project that will create jobs ... and will ensure Ohio is connected to the rest of the country as other states develop high-speed rail."
Rally in Wisconsin
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wrote both Kasich and Walker earlier this month telling them the high-speed rail funds could not be used for any other projects. If "you choose not to participate in the program," he wrote to Kasich in a letter dated Nov. 9, "we would like to engage in an orderly transition to wind down Ohio's involvement in the project so that we do not waste the taxpayers' money."
On Saturday, supporters of Wisconsin's rail corridor held rallies in seven cities across the state, including Madison, where about 200 people gathered near the spot where a new high-speed rail station would be built.
"This isn't about campaign promises. This is about what is best for the future of Wisconsin," Bob Lien of LienTec said to the crowd. The company received a rail-related contract and was planning to hire six more workers if the project moved ahead. "They are playing politics with our livelihood."
The USA lags behind many industrial nations that have long incorporated high-speed rail transportation, such as Japan, where the Tokyo-to-Osaka bullet train has been running since 1964.
"The advantages are many," says Anthony Perl, a professor of urban studies and political science at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver who has written extensively about rail passenger policy. The trains lead to "energy efficiency, lower impact on surrounding areas and highways and airports, convenience, safety."
And, he says, high-speed rail could help relieve the USA's dependence on oil: "The U.S. can't count on cheap oil and therefore needs to count on transportation options that can move without oil, and high-speed rail is the best-suited intercity option."
Amtrak has the high-speed Acela Express traveling between Boston and Washington, D.C., and reaching a maximum speed of 150 mph in parts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
But the vision for the national high-speed rail network is to create infrastructure that could accommodate trains that reach up to 220 mph in some parts of the country, rail experts say.
Oliver Hauck, president of Siemens' U.S. mobility division, which makes the Velaro, a high-speed train operated in several countries including Germany and China, says he is watching the political back-and-forth closely.
"To one degree, we are concerned that this complete rollout ... may be delayed," he says. But if an assessment of the current crop of proposed projects leads to resources being focused on just the few that are likely to be most successful, "That would be a positive sign."
Charisse Jones, USA TODAY