Obama Taps High-Speed Rail Winners: Florida, California, Illinois and More

6a00e551eea4f588340120a81c4c92970b.jpgClick here for a larger version. Image: USDOT

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama hinted at what many in the transportation world have anticipated all week: Florida’s emergence as a winner in the race for a share of the White House’s $8 billion (and growing) high-speed rail fund.

But Florida will not be the biggest beneficiary of the administration’s first rail rollout. The state taking home the most high-speed aid today is California, which snagged $2.25 billion to begin the process of linking Anaheim and San Francisco. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration had sought more than double that amount to begin its $42 billion rail project.

Florida is set to receive $1.25 billion for Tampa-to-Orlando rail service, while Illinois is getting about the same amount to begin environmental studies on a Chicago-to-St. Louis route and improve speeds between Alton and Dwight to 110 miles per hour (mph).

Other states celebrating this morning include Wisconsin, which got $810 million for upgrades to trains between Madison and Milwaukee; North Carolina, winner of $520 million for improvements of service between Raleigh and Charlotte; and Washington and Oregon, which got $590 million to boost the rail link between Seattle and Portland.

House infrastructure committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) hailed today’s first rail grants as "a transformational moment," adding: "The development of high-speed rail in the United
States is an historic opportunity to create jobs, develop a new domestic
manufacturing base, and provide an environmentally-friendly and competitive
transportation alternative to the traveling public."

The president and Vice President Biden are set to officially announce the rail winners this afternoon. But after a process marked at times by parochial jockeying for funds and concern over whether federal aid would be awarded in too piecemeal a fashion, it was not surprising to see Republicans seize upon the potential pitfalls of the high-speed program.

Rep. John Mica (R-FL), whose district in Central Florida is among today’s big winners, released a statement that started out on a positive note but quickly shifted to a scathing critique of the administration’s rail vision for lacking maximum speeds that approach those in Europe and China, where bullet train passengers rocket along at 150 mph and faster.

“Even the first leg
of the Orlando-Tampa route will be a slow-speed, short-stop line,” Mica said. “The Midwest
routes chosen will only achieve a top speed of 110 miles per hour and were selected
more for political reasons than for high-speed service.”

Several of the rail upgrades receiving funds today are expected to improve top speeds to 90 mph or less, including the North Carolina project and an Ohio bid to start train service between Cleveland and Cincinnati.

Mica also decried the lack of any significant funding to improve Amtrak’s northeast corridor, which he termed an "unfortunate hijacking" that would ensure service between Boston and Washington "remain[s] the slow-speed stepchild of passenger rail

In a knock at the northeast route’s popularity with commuting lawmakers — including, most famously, the vice president — Mica added: "Keeping the Northeast Corridor as a private train set for a
few select politicians will insure continued congestion in our nation’s
most densely populated region."

The northeast region will receive $112 million in total today, including $38.5 million to build a new rail bridge in northern New Jersey that will create expanded commuting capacity in anticipation of the massive Access to the Region’s Core tunnel connecting the region to New York City.

Mica was joined by Rep. Bud Shuster (R-PA) in his critical statement. Meanwhile, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) — a major proponent of modern rail service along New York’s upstate Empire Corridor — had only good things to say about today’s announcement although her region looked to miss out on the initial round of high-speed aid.

"In addition to creating construction and design jobs, the investment in rail will help the U.S. economy in a myriad of other ways, such as easing congestion on roads, reducing pollution and helping to bring development to different communities," Slaughter said.

Even as the White House gives its rail investment a deserved dose of pomp and circumstance today, advocates for U.S. high-speed train service continue to look to the future as a gauge of the administration’s commitment. Congress’ $2.5 billion appropriation for 2010 will need to be matched in future years, rail planners say, in order to make even one state’s proposal a reality before the decade is through.

As the group America 2050 put it in statement released before the winning states emerged:

We recognize that tomorrow’s funding announcement represents less
than 5 percent of what will be needed to build a truly national HSR system. In
1956, President Eisenhower initiated the Interstate Highway System, which was
built over several decades in partnership with the states through a sustained
funding commitment and a dedicated revenue source by the federal government. To
realize a national vision for high-speed rail, a similar funding commitment by
the federal government will be required.

  • JK

    Great. I’ll be thinking about this while I’m waiting for the bus with my six year old in the January night. Two thirds of transit riders in this country take the bus. What are they getting, other than shafted?

  • Josh

    Is there a larger larger version? That still isn’t really legible.

  • Boris

    I always wonder about the Republicans’ inability to see the bigger picture. Their complaints are the same as the complaints of home owners who want low real estate taxes but high home prices- ignoring the fact that the tax is a percentage of a home’s value.

    Neither the White House nor the Republicans are addressing the national vision, as America 2050 mentions. Rail operations in this country is fundamentally different from highway operations. Highways are a public-private partnership (public roads, private cars) while railways are either private-private or public-public (I think in New York State there are state-owned rails used by private freight companies, but it seems like an exception). If Republicans really want to have constructive dialogue on how to create a world-class, efficient, and cheap high speed rail system, they should be working on a vision of railways similar to highways- a user fee-based system of private operators on public rails.

  • Sam

    Jeez it seems to me high speed rail lines could mostly be planned out and the land could easily be obtained next to highways or reclaimed from highways. Just think of the thickest red lines as high speed rail.


  • Republicans do not like public transportation because it is subsidized by tax dollars.

    Interstate highways and other automobile-centric infrastructure is subsidized by magic, apparently.

  • Omri

    Sam, I wish that were true. Unfortunately, highways have far sharper curves and steeper inclines than trains can tolerate.

  • The northeast region will receive $112 million in total today, including $38.5 million to build a new rail bridge in northern New Jersey that will create expanded commuting capacity in anticipation of the massive Access to the Region’s Core tunnel connecting the region to New York City.

    Yay! More money-wasting!

    Though at least the big ARC waste is funded out of a separate pot.

    Just think of the thickest red lines as high speed rail.

    Not every highway deserves HSR on it. For example, in Pennsylvania, a route from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh loosely following I-76 makes sense, but an I-80 route does not. In Texas the optimal route may not be a triangle, but a T.

    Freeway rights of way are important for HSR, but many lines should not follow freeways and many freeways should not have rail next to them.

  • Thanks, Elana! Anyone know why news outlets and some blogs seem to have details of the grants, but it’s not available for download from the DOT website?

    Alon, I agree that the ARC tunnel is going to be a big waste, but why the hate for the Portal Bridge?

  • Zyzzyx

    So… we’re keeping up with the vision for 2050 starting with a few billion $$ going out.

    However, we’re also shortsighting the vision for the even closer future by flatlining the budget for NASA, by a relatively small $2 billion.

    I’m all for good HSR where it needs to be, and it should’ve been available by now. But I’m quite worried about ‘outsourcing’ our space program as has been suggested will happen.

  • Really, I like High Speed Rail, but this seems to be a replacement for Extensive Rail. If we could just get back to the level of reach the rail network had in 1962, that would be a much better investment.

  • Thanks again, Elana! Looks like your long URL has a shorter one embedded in it:


  • Sam


    Just think of it as a rough guide to where they should be. When highway spaces can be used, use them, when it can’t because of turns or inclines, work around it. This is America! We sent a man to the moon! You’d think we could build some massive high speed rail infrastructure.

  • Boris

    This is also the country that sent hundreds of billions of dollars to Iraq- some of it in cash, never to be seen again. Iraq is a national defense priority, the same as highways in the 50’s and Apollo in the 60’s. If we can ever again convince ourselves that a good deterrent against attack is building up our own infrastructure and technology, instead of destroying others’, than money for high speed rail or whatever other national defense project will quickly materialize.

  • archie

    If more was given to the Northeast and less to Florida, you can be certain that Mica would have criticized the lawmakers favoring themselves and ignoring the “common folk” in Florida. It’s lose-lose with some of these guys. His constituents should be embarassed.

  • Sam


    You win this round good sir. Well played.

  • Boris

    Thanks, Sam. I try.

  • Wisconsin gets $810 million? How many people live in Wisconsin?

    California should have gotten 4-5 billion, as they’ve been working on it for over a decade, and the locals have voted YES for funding multiple times. The rest should have gone to the east coast to fix Acela.

    Why is the disney train so important? How is Tampa-Orlando a priority for anyone?

  • Danny G

    Yeah, Boris wins big time on this one

  • Archie: Mica has been a proponent of greater investment in the NEC for years now.

  • Joseph Aziz

    Will this be done before or after we go onto plastic coins since we obviously don’t have the money to pay for it?