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    Farewell Ray LaHood, and Thanks For All the Trains

    Written by

    Michael Byrne


    If you missed it, NPR's Morning Edition earlier this week hosted a most impressive lovefest for outgoing U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Featured was Charlotte mayor Anthony Foxx, LaHood's replacement, along with a few select transit advocates, who spoke of LaHood and President Obama as nothing short of mass transit heroes. No, not for fumbling fiscal cliff negotiations and allowing the sequester to put hundreds of air traffic controllers out of work, but for high-speed rail. The president's HSR plan, which put about $10 billion into Amtrak and high-speed rail projects across the country, will go down as a shining halo on the records of both figures, was the collective assertion.

    Looking at the proposed high-speed rail map attached to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the parent document of said rail plan, one might wonder how many of those lines are currently being filled in with actual steel and catenaries, or have definite plans for such. The answer is one, California's High-Speed Rail project linking San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego via the state's highly unillustrious heartland. More specifically, a small slice of that corridor between Fresco and Merced, has been funded by the feds and state (thanks, Arnold) and green-lighted by the Obama administration, as of last fall.

    However, critics of the line are currently having a field day with declining public support for the line, and some apparent fudging in the construction bidding process for Fresno-Merced Initial Operating Segment. It's hard to imagine the state cancelling the whole thing, but it wouldn't be the first big project shelved after an already massive investment.

    Sigh. $2.3 billion of the ARRA's high-speed rail money went to California in 2010--some for the future high-speed line, some for conventional passenger rail upgrades--with about $3 billion more allocated shortly afterward from states with anti-public investment/anti-sound infrastructure governors that had rejected federal funds allocated to them for rail projects (once again, clap, clap, clap). The rest of that $10 billion went to projects not likely to impress anyone looking forward to a European-style high-speed system in the U.S.

    There's a good reason for that: it's difficult to lay down the railroad of the future when the one you currently have is a decaying third-world relic. Endless (though hardly ageless) political negotiations between the two positions (and only two positions) of having a functional passenger railroad system in the U.S. and having nothing at all have left the Amtrak system absolutely starved for capital funding, with maintenance backlogs totalling $6 billion on the Northeast Corridor alone (the line between Boston and D.C.).

    That's a segment that looks space-age compared to most of the Amtrak system. If the reader hasn't had the opportunity to chill on a six hour-late California Zepher that's sporting a bunch of handwritten signage and a busted snack car beer fridge while waiting on a string of freight trains in Iowa , well then, they're missing out on a piece of America. Personally, I love it, but for reasons that have little to do with getting places quickly and economically.

    A 1968 Metroliner train/Wikimedia Commons

    Most of the federal government's banner passenger rail allocation during LaHood's tenure actually went to smaller-scale projects like upgrading Michigan's Wolverine service (between Detroit and Chicago) to a nominally quick 110 mph in some sections, $85 million to Indiana for overhauling Amtrak's coaches and engines, and even more boring stuff like modernizing communications systems and new signs. Also: accessibility upgrades everywhere. And there's still a near bottomless pit of overdue upgrades left to be filled just to maintain the status quo. And that alone will take about $2 billion a year to keep up with, according to Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman.

    The point here is that President Obama and his transportation secretary were pretty much doomed to failure as far as creating an actual high-speed rail network in the United States. The sad future of Amtrak, for however long it takes for the anti-rail stronghold to die off (two, three decades?), is somewhere beneath modern acceptability and, certainly, beneath high-speed standards.

    Even the Northeast Corridor will remain stunted until something is done about its traffic bottlenecks. One of those, underneath Baltimore, is being eliminated thanks to stimulus funding but the other, between Newark and Penn Station, is as hopeless as it's been since New Jersey governor Chris Christie cancelled the project in 2010 after already spending $600 million on construction.

    In a speech Monday, LaHood himself erroneously referred to the Obama high-speed rail initiative as the first of its kind in the U.S. We've actually been here before. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed the High-Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965, another rail system of the future that was unveiled shortly after the debut of Japan's Shinkansen "bullet train."

    It's a somewhat depressing analog, given the extent to which Johnson's plan is by-now forgotten. It was largely research-focused, and delivered a bit of experimental rail technology you won't find anywhere. The Metroliner service established by the bill, a precursor to the modern Northeast Corridor with an even faster average speed than the Acela Express, faded away during the '80s after the formation of Amtrak, as emphasis shifted back to conventional, slow-speed rail.

    Johnson's signing address is as appropriate today as it was then:

    We have airplanes which fly three times faster than sound. We have television cameras that are orbiting Mars. But we have the same tired and inadequate mass transportation between our towns and cities that we had 30 years ago.

    Today, as we meet here in this historic room where Abigail Adams hung out her washing, an astronaut can orbit the earth faster than a man on the ground can get from New York to Washington. Yet, the same science and technology which gave us our airplanes and our space probes, I believe, could also give us better and faster and more economical transportation on the ground. And a lot of us need it more on the ground than we need it orbiting the earth.

    Hopefully California's line, once connected to San Francisco and Los Angeles, can at least be Obama's (and LaHood's) Northeast Corridor and, more importantly, another line to prove the concept of high-speed rail in America. Political shitshow or not, that concept holds.

    Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.