Funds appear to sidetrack Obama’s vision for rail

High-speed rail networks might very well be the “smart transportation system” of the 21st century, as President Obama declared Thursday. The trouble is, we’re using a very 20th century method to pay for them.

Obama envisions a nationwide system of high-speed lines. The $787-billion economic stimulus package included $8 billion to pay for them, and Obama’s proposed budget would dole out another $1 billion a year for five years for passenger rail. On Thursday, the White House identified 10 corridors throughout the country that would be eligible for funding, including a line in California that would run from San Diego to San Francisco and Sacramento.

“Now, all of you know this is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future. ... It’s been happening for decades. The problem is, it’s been happening elsewhere, not here,” Obama said, referring to countries such as France, Japan, Spain and China that have impressive bullet-train networks. But there was something he failed to mention: With the exception of China, whose government can spend any way it likes, all of these countries impose steep taxes on gasoline. The taxes have the dual purpose of providing the funding to build public transit and encouraging people to ride it because they make driving prohibitively expensive. Gas taxes in the United States are minuscule in comparison.

Instead of raising the money to pay for his vision, Obama proposes to fund it with debt. So does the state of California, where voters last November approved nearly $10 billion in bonds for the San Diego-to-Sacramento train Obama aims to support. That’s all well and good, except that the California train alone is expected to cost in excess of $40 billion. Obama’s $13 billion over five years won’t go far in building a national network that would cost hundreds of billions. So where’s the rest of the money going to come from?

Moreover, making rail travel attractive will take a lot more than building bullet trains. U.S. passenger train lines are notoriously unreliable, in part because so many of them share tracks with freight trains, which cause constant delays and the occasional devastating accident. Solving that problem will require new tracks, improved signaling, GPS technologies and other expensive systems.

Obama is dead right that a 21st century rail network would improve mobility and productivity while reducing emissions and reliance on foreign oil. But the current gas tax can’t even maintain our existing infrastructure of highways and bridges, let alone fund the president’s vision. As Congress negotiates a transportation bill that will determine federal taxing and spending for the next five years, it must keep that in mind.