How Much High Speed Rail will $2.4 Billion Buy?

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(Matt Dellinger, Transportation Nation) It should be more fun to give away billions of dollars for rail. One of the happiest things a politician gets to do, after all, is fork over cash for transportation projects. All those gold shovels, ribbon cuttings, and bridge-naming ceremonies! And, one could argue, President Barack Obama and SecretaryRay LaHood should feel triply blessed. With today’s politics being what they are, they get to dole out money more than once!

But there’s something of a deflated mood around the bids that came in this week for the $2.4 billion in High Speed Rail funds that Florida rejected in February. The money seems a little tainted, perhaps, and politically heavy. It’s unseemly to celebrate over such federal largess when Washington is on the verge of a shutdown and budget negotiators are contemplating cutting vital programs. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Florida Governor Rick Scott, elected as a budget hawks, decided the safe bet was to show restraint and send back big fat slices of transportation pie. By doing so, they left more for everyone else—but they also made the indulgence more fraught. These are hungry times, though, and money won’t sit around long. By Monday, twenty four states, plus Washington D.C. and Amtrak, had bid for pieces of Florida’s pie.

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What the Administration and rail boosters lost in the Florida debacle—a truly high-speed segment with right-of-way secured and private investors in line, that could have been built in the visible future (the next Presidential term, for instance)—will not be gained back by anything proposed Monday. Among the list of projects there is no item that will similarly turn a rail-less corridor into a futuristic proof-of-concept. The speeds mentioned are all easily imaginable by anyone with a decent car. Without a confidence in messaging that has so far eluded the Administration when it comes to transportation, it will be hard to sell this reapportionment as anything earth-shattering, or even (literally)  ground-breaking.

So what can this money do? If you read about the bids (such as Michigan's, Pennsylvania's, and Illinois'), you know that most of the bidders have in mind a set of very worthy incremental upgrades—a renovated bridge here, a bypass there, upgraded switches here—and studies to advance future megaprojects such as the Gateway Tunnel under the Hudson. Skeptics will point out, as the venerable publisher of Innovation Briefs, Ken Orski, has done, that this kind of birdshot smattering of small projects is hardly lunar-landing stuff. But this serves as criticism only because the Administration’s rhetoric has routinely exceeded the nation’s grasp.  It's not the time for rail, they argue, it's the time for real.

On the other hand, the administration argues, if you don't dream, dreams will never be real.  Everyone understands that President Eisenhower built the Interstates. But the system was drawn up in 1944, twelve whole years before the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. It was FDR who made the plans for a system of “Interregional Highways” and who, during the Depression, first wrestled with the question of how to build them. Eisenhower blew the dust off those plans and signed a bill that created a mechanism for funding them. If High Speed Rail ever happens, future Americans might not remember the President who circulated the maps and funded the studies. They’ll remember the President who figured out how to pay for it all.

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Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.