No other issue personifies the dysfunction at the heart of America — or as they would say on Twitter, #AmericaFail — as much as the inability to move ahead with high-speed rail. The Obama administration and Democratic-controlled Congress never made a serious effort. The $13 billion initially offered is nothing compared with what's needed. By comparison, China is spending $100 billion a year. Much of the money here would go to higher-speed rail, not the 155-mile-per-hour-plus systems that qualify as genuine high-speed rail. And the choice of Florida for the nation's first HSR line was always misplaced: Florida is a car-culture, suburbanized state, especially in Orlando and Tampa, the destinations of the line, with little appreciation or habit of taking trains. HSR would better be tried in rail-friendly territory, such as California or the Pacific Northwest, or making the Northeast Corridor true high speed. Then Americans could see how well such a system would really work. Now, with Republican governors in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida refusing the federal money, and the GOP-controlled House solidly anti-rail, it looks as if even this modest start will come to little.
The Republican fetish against trains and transit, so well articulated by George Will (and followed by priceless takedowns by Paul Krugman and Jim Kunstler) has always fascinated me. It was Abraham Lincoln who started the heavily subsidized transcontinental railroad. Republican presidents after him further subsidized more railroads through land grants. "Internal improvements" was a key Republican issue. No more. Republicans routinely refuse to even consider rail or rail transit as necessary options for the nation. They most of all wage war against Amtrak, keeping it too underfunded to succeed with frequent, convenient schedules (and it's still wildly popular). These "conservatives" had no interest in conserving what was once the world's most advanced passenger rail system. Is it that they represent the suburbs and exurbs, so are mindless creatures of car culture. Or is it the billions spent by the oil, auto and sprawl industries to ensure America stays mired in a 1970s transportation system? Indeed, the U.S. government gives oil and gas companies $41 billion a year, nearly 40 times Amtrak's annual budget. As usual, the fecklessness of Democrats enables the problem (oh, for a real opposition party).
In the real world, passenger trains are a major part of the transportation systems of advanced nations. The April edition of Trains magazine, a special report on HSR (not available online, alas), is quite an eye-opener.