Debate Forum: Topic 2/16/11

President Obama Doubles Down on High-Speed Rail

Cartoon by Lisa Benson

Vice President Joe Biden announced last week that President Barack Obama will ask Congress to approve a six-year, $53 billion program for construction of a national high-speed and intercity rail network, which he envisions will “jump-start job creation.” Biden stated during the announcement that there is a pressing need “to invest in a modern rail system that will help connect communities, reduce congestion and create quality, skilled manufacturing jobs that cannot be outsourced.”

An initial $8 billion in spending was part of President Obama’s recently released budget plan. If Congress approves, the money would go toward developing or improving trains that travel up to 250 mph, and connecting existing rail lines to new projects. The White House wouldn’t commit to where the money for the rest of the program would come from.

Under the budget proposal, about $8 billion would be spent in the first year to develop or improve interconnected rail corridors that Biden said would form the backbone of a national high-speed rail system.

The six-year, $53 billion request comes on top of a $10.5 billion down payment toward a high-speed rail system, $8 billion of which was funded through the stimulus program.

Such corridors would be divided into three categories: “core express” for trains achieving speeds of between 125 and 250 mph or more; “regional” lines for trains traveling between 90 to 125 mph; and “emerging” rail lines for passenger trains traveling as much as 90 mph.

The President’s proposal comes at a time when many in the Congress, and especially in the Republican-led House, seem determined to cut federal spending. The high-speed rail project is likely to receive a cool reception as the budget battle begins in earnest.

Critics of the proposed project cite that with federal funding on a “cost-plus” basis, this rail project can be relied upon to cost many times initial estimates, to drag on for years beyond its original completion dates and to attract only a small portion of its projected ridership. In addition, they argue, fares will have to be heavily and permanently subsidized. Even America’s densest commuter rail corridor – between Washington and Boston – has proved incapable of sustaining rail service without vast federal subsidies.

One Republican Congressman stated that approving more money for Obama to use on this rail project in hopes that it will jump start the economy is like, “giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio.”

Many city and state supporters have already stepped forward, and plans have already been released for high-speed rail systems in areas such as along Lake Erie and in cities like Fresno, Calif. The U.S. Travel Association announced full support of the program. In a statement, President and CEO of U.S. Travel, Roger Dow said the administration’s high-speed rail proposal was a “much-needed step toward rebuilding and expanding the national transportation system, and strengthening our economy.”
Forum Question of the Week:
Should Congress pass President Obama’s $53 billion proposal for constructing high-speed rail in America, despite the concerns of Congress about controlling federal spending?

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