By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 11/7/2011 6:08:05 AM ET 2011-11-07T11:08:05

Image: Railroad map
Federal Railroad Administration
Red lines in this map show planned high-speed rail corridors across the U.S.

President Barack Obama's high-speed rail initiative is in danger of turning into the Big Engine That Couldn't.

As part of the economic stimulus plan of 2009, Obama pushed through more than $8 billion in initial funding to extend high-speed intercity rail service to 10 major U.S. rail corridors by 2034. The idea is to create superfast rail service — like Japan's futuristic bullet trains — that would be available to 80 percent of the U.S. population.

A quarter of that money — a little more than $2 billion — went to California, where voters in 2008 approved a plan to build a 220-mph line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The California High Speed Rail Authority promised voters that the line would open in 2020, at an overall price of about $33 billion.

Since then, not a single segment of track has been laid and not a single station has opened.

That 2020 ribbon-cutting? It's now projected to be no earlier than 2033 — at least 13 years late. That $33 billion price tag? It's been recalculated at $98.5 billion — nearly three times the original estimate.

The news came from the state's High Speed Rail Authority, which issued an updated "business plan" (.pdf) last week at the direction of California Gov. Jerry Brown. The good news, said Tom Umberg, chairman of the authority, is that "we understand the project better." The bad news is that "as time goes by, things get more expensive."

Actual construction must begin by next October or federal funding, which has grown to nearly $4.7 billion, goes away. Republicans in the Legislature want to give sticker-shocked voters a chance to change their minds by holding another referendum next year, warning that California shouldn't risk starting construction only to have future appropriations dry up.

The construction schedule calls for the first segment to be built not in heavily populated areas around Los Angeles or San Francisco, but in a relatively lightly trafficked corridor between Fresno and Bakersfield, in the Central Valley. Critics say that if the project has to be abandoned, Californians would be stuck with an uncompleted spur serving only a few thousand passengers — what they're calling "the train to nowhere."

"Knowing what we know now, we think the time is now to pull the plug on this project," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, a conservative activist group.

The California line is the first of the major high-speed rail stimulus programs to get up and running toward real construction. The status of the other projects also is in flux.

Most of them are still in planning phases, but a second complication has been resistance from Republican governors in three states — Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin — who turned down high-speed rail funding when it was initially offered. That money was redistributed among two dozen rail projects — some of them high-speed, including the California line, as well as maintenance or infrastructure improvements. (See box.)

White House press secretary Jay Carney said last week that Obama was still committed to the the plan, telling reporters that "we've let our infrastructure decline, and we have ceded the cutting edge in many areas to our global competitors. And that's certainly the case with regards to high-speed rail."

Carney said the White House was ready to "continue to work with lawmakers of both parties around the country, as well as local officials, who are interested in this kind of investment, because it really is the kind of thing that will help create a better future for the individual states and the country."

Last week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott wasn't shy about saying "I told you so."

Scott said he rejected a federal offer of $2.4 billion because he didn't want Florida to get stuck with a wildly inflated bill. Now, Californians are "on the hook for another 50-some billion dollars," Scott told reporters. "So I know all of you were very supportive of my decision on high-speed rail."

And even if California officials go full speed ahead, the federal money could be drying up.

Supporters of high-speed rail in Congress couldn't overcome a threatened Republican filibuster last week to the transportation section of Obama's proposed American Jobs Act, which effectively killed the section and the $4 billion extra it would have spent on the rail initiative.

Story: What happened to super-speedy trains?

And the Senate flat-lined overall spending when it passed its 2012 transportation bill last week, agreeing to budget a meager $100 million for Obama's plan — in essence, approving just enough money to act as a placeholder so the program isn't "zeroed out," or killed. The bill — including the placeholder money — passed with the support of the White House (.pdf).

The Republican-controlled House hasn't passed its transportation bill yet, but it's expected to cut overall funding even more.

It wasn't supposed to be this way
The U.S. had ambitious plans to connect the country with a network of high-speed trains when it inaugurated Amtrak's Acela Express service between Washington and New York in December 2000. Eleven years later, the Acela remains the nation's only high-speed line, and it's not really accurate to call it even that.

The Acela is capable of running as fast as 165 mph, well above the government high-speed definition of 150 mph. But it averages only about 80 mph, because it has to share tracks with conventional trains and because some of those tracks are supported by infrastructure dating, in some stretches, back to 1935.

That's why so much attention is being paid to the project in California — it effectively would be the first truly high-speed rail line in the U.S. But the attractiveness of that distinction is wearing off with Californians, whose support for the line has dropped sharply amid delays and ballooning costs.

  1. Most popular

In September 2010, 76 percent of Californians told pollsters that they fully or somewhat supported building the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line. Only 13 percent said they opposed it completely.

One year later, opposition to the line had nearly quintupled, to 62 percent, according a poll by Probolsky Research of Newport Beach, Calif. Moreover, "the more voters know about high-speed rail, the more they are likely to vote to stop the project," Probolsky reported.

Another big problem is that the biggest resistance is in the area where the first line is planned: the Central Valley. By October, California officials must overcome not only the cost roadblocks  — "each year we delay, the project adds about 2 (billion) to 3 billion dollars to the project price tag,” said Umberg, head of the High Speed Rail Authority — but also intense opposition from people like Jack Vesely, a retired brewery worker whose home in Rosedale is in the segment's path.

“I'm 72. I don't want to move. Nobody wants to move," Vesely said. "We all love our land."

The proposed initial line would also go right through Bakersfield High School and Bethel Christian School in Bakersfield, along with as many as 239 homes, 282 business and eight churches, according to calculations by Citizens Against High Speed Rail, a local activist group.

Jeff Taylor, the owner of a landscaping business in Bakersfield who joined the group, said that was an unacceptable hit on the area's infrastructure.

The concerns — the delays, the soaring costs or the disruption to local landowners — have not changed the mind of Gov. Brown, who has championed the initiative from the beginning.

In a statement after the High Speed Rail Authority put out its gloomy new business plan, Brown reiterated his conviction that the rail line would "create hundreds of thousands of jobs, linking California's population centers and avoiding the huge problems of massive airport and highway expansion."

Even with its alarming new numbers, the plan remains "solid," Brown said, and it "lays the foundation for a 21st century transportation system."

Documents cited in this story:

California High-Speed Rail Program Draft 2012 Business Plan (.pdf)

YouTube: Florida Gov. Rick Scott's comments on California overruns

White House Office of Management and Budget letter supporting passage of Senate bill cutting high-speed rail funding (.pdf)

2010 California poll survey of support for Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line (.pdf)

2011 California poll survey of support for Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line (.pdf)

California Gov. Jerry Brown's statement reiterating support for Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line

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