The Recovery Act provides $8 billion for high-speed rail – a strong start, but a vision is needed.
Last year on the campaign trail, Barack Obama touted bullet trains as the next big thing in US transportation. "I don't want to see the fastest train in the world built halfway around the world in Shanghai," he said. "I want to see it built right here."
It's an exciting prospect, the idea of saving US travelers time and carbon, and sparing them frustration over crowded highways and airports. But it's a long, long way from Amtrak's average speed of 40 m.p.h. to the magnetic levitation train in Shanghai, which runs at 259 m.p.h., or to bullet trains in Europe and Japan.
Just narrowing this gap will require long-term commitment by Washington. The White House is off to a strong start by asking for – and getting – $8 billion for high-speed rail in the economic recovery package. The administration proposes an additional $5 billion over five years. For comparison, Amtrak's annual budget is $3.2 billion.
The public may think the US already has a bullet train in Amtrak's Acela, which stretches from Boston to Washington, D.C. But that service, which is capable of 150 m.p.h., rarely reaches this speed due to curvy tracks and other constraints.