Politics Jeopardizing Some High-Speed Rail Projects

When President Barack Obama announced in January that 13 high-speed rail projects covering 22 states would share $8 billion in seed money, he spoke with optimism about easing highway congestion while bolstering the U.S. economy. Eight months later, some Republicans running for congressional or statehouses seats are singling out the funds, part of Obama's economic stimulus package, as a waste of taxpayer dollars distributed too widely to do much good. A more practical obstacle has also emerged: Freight rail carriers that own some tracks are resisting sharing their lines.

Some of the projects are chugging along. As of Oct. 1, $883 million had been sent to six of the 13 projects, says the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration. California, Florida, and Illinois got the largest awards. The agency is parceling out the money as the states meet its requirements.

Obama's home state of Illinois may be the first to offer rapid service. With $1.2 billion in stimulus funds, Illinois began construction on Sept. 17 of a Chicago-to-St. Louis route, using track owned by Union Pacific (UNP), the biggest U.S. railroad. Trains will travel up to 110 miles an hour by 2012, ferrying passengers between the two cities in four hours. The quick action came in part because the route doesn't get much freight traffic, says Ed Hamberger, chief executive officer of the Association of American Railroads. When completed, the line may need subsidies, although a source has not yet been determined.

Florida, with a $1.3 billion award, could be next. Planners had the foresight to reserve space down the median of Interstate 4, between Tampa and Orlando, for rail service. Passengers will travel the 84 miles in 55 minutes. Construction is expected to begin next year and service in 2015, unless Rick Scott, the Republican nominee for governor, wins in November. Scott has said he won't accept stimulus funds for the project because it will require ongoing subsidies to operate.

California, where fast trains would run between Sacramento, San Francisco, and San Diego, had hoped to be right behind Florida. The state got a $2.3 billion stimulus award, and voters approved a $10 billion bond measure. California had planned a dedicated track for high-speed rail, some of it running alongside tracks owned by Union Pacific. But the railroad recently said it isn't willing to share the right-of-way along 200 miles of track.

Karen Rae, the rail administration's No. 2, defends the agency's decision to fund so many projects at once. "It's not easy to just create something from cloth," Rae says. "If you go back to 1919 when they had the bureau of public roads, it took them three years to get the first dollar out."

The bottom line: High-speed rail projects are running into political roadblocks, yet some states are barreling along.

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