Transportation: The White House Wants Billions for High-Speed Rail. Will They Get It?

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An artist's rendering of California's proposed high-speed rail

Vice President Joe Biden earned the nickname “Amtrak Joe” not because he used to hop the rails hobo-style in his youth—that would be the Onion version of the Veep—but because he made over 7,900 commuting trips on Amtrak between Washington and his home in Wilmington during his 26-year career in the Senate. Logically, the White House tapped Biden today to travel to Philadelphia—by train, of course—to announce an ambitious plan to spend $53 billion over the next six years to promote the construction of a national high-speed, intercity rail network. That $53 billion would represent a major expansion of the $10.5 billion already spent on high-speed rail under the Obama Administration, including $8 billion in the 2009 stimulus package, but Biden argued that rail investment would pay off with economic growth:

As President Obama said in his State of the Union, there are key places where we cannot afford to sacrifice as a nation – one of which is infrastructure. As a long time Amtrak rider and advocate, I understand the 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. This plan will help us to do that, while also increasing access to convenient high-speed rail for more Americans.

The new plan includes $8 billion for passenger-rail projects in this year’s budget, set to be released on Monday. Most of the money that has already been spent by the federal government has gone to Florida and to California, where high-speed rail projects were already well into the planning stage. But President Obama—who pledged in his State of the Union speech to make high-speed rail accessible to 80% of Americans by 2036—has grander plans, envisioning high-speed arteries around major hubs like Chicago, southern California and the Northeast corridor, connected to existing rail networks. It might look something like this map, from the Department of Transportation:

But creating a truly national high-speed rail network will cost significantly more than $53 billion. (The only line that might be considered high-speed now is Amtrak’s Acela line on the Northeast Corridor, which only averages a poky 90 mph, though it can reach speeds up to 150 mph.) California says that just building a high-speed line that links San Francisco to southern California—what could be a high-traffic route—would cost $43 billion, of which the near-bankrupt state has received just $3.2 billion so far. Unfortunately for the White House there’s little evidence that deficit-minded Republicans in Congress will open up the purse strings for rail, high-speed or otherwise:

Rep. John L. Mica (R., Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, and Rep. Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Railroads Subcommittee, criticized the rail plan.

“Government won’t develop American high-speed rail. Private investment and a competitive market will,” Mr. Shuster said in a statement. Mr. Mica said the administration should focus its efforts on the Northeast Corridor, the most congested area for railway travel, rather than on other “marginal projects.”

It might well be smart to first address rail on the Northeast Corridor, where Acela has proven popular despite the occasional, um, problems. But political realities often mean that infrastructure dollars end up split, instead of focused where they could do the most good. But as Biden argued in Philadelphia, it would be a mistake to turn our back on infrastructure investment and high-speed rail:

The fact is public infrastructure investment raises private sector productivity, promotes growth and creates jobs. Infrastructure is the veins and arteries of economies.

More from TIME on high-speed rail:

High-Speed Rail: Obama’s High-Stakes Gamble