What CNN Is Missing About High-Speed Rail

CNN has repeatedly portrayed stimulus funding for high-speed rail as a “boondoggle” because much of the money has gone to upgrading existing rail lines rather than new bullet trains. But the untold story is that Republican obstructionism has halted progress on new high-speed rail lines, which require a long-term investment of time and money.

The Situation Room aired a report by Drew Griffin on Tuesday claiming that high-speed rail is “turning into a pipe dream,” pointing to a rail improvement project in Washington state that has received $800 million in stimulus funding. The project is on track to achieve its goal of improving schedule reliability, increasing trips and reducing travel times between Seattle and Portland to serve an increasing ridership. But as CNN noted, Washington never intended to use that funding to build a new rail line for high-speed bullet trains. Griffin's report, which follows a series on Anderson Cooper 360 that criticized projects in Vermont and California, led guest anchor Joe Johns to conclude that taxpayers are “not getting much out of their investment” in high-speed rail:

In fact, the stimulus has supported 150 planning and construction projects across the country, “jumpstart[ing]” a “renaissance” for passenger rail, according to a Brookings Institution report. This progress comes despite Republican efforts to prevent high-speed rail projects from moving forward. Republican governors in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida rejected stimulus grants for new high-speed rail projects in their states, citing the cost to taxpayers. But when some of that money was diverted to Amtrak upgrades (including the Washington state project highlighted by CNN), some of those same governors sought funding for rail improvement projects. Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress blocked President Obama's six-year, $53 billion budget request for high-speed rail, dismissing it as just a "fun thing." CNN overlooked these roadblocks, which have slowed the progress of high-speed rail.

Furthermore, CNN shouldn't be so quick to declare these investments failures. Developing a high-speed rail system in America that rivals those in Europe and Japan is a massive undertaking akin to the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s. As Federal Railroad Administration Chief Joe Szabo noted last year, “The Interstate Highway System took 10 administrations, 28 sessions of Congress, to be completed.” It also cost taxpayers more than $100 billion.

And we are still spending billions to maintain this system. In the case of Washington state, stimulus funds for transportation were spent overwhelmingly on highways rather than public transit, as the DC Streetsblog noted:

Source: Recovery.gov

Like the highway system, high-speed rail will require significant upfront investment and a sustained financial commitment. But as the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service noted, these costs “are often justified by the social benefits” of high-speed rail, including “relieving congestion, reducing pollution, increasing energy efficiency, and contributing to employment and economic development.”

Our current infrastructure has perpetuated a national dependence on oil and cars for generations, and that won't change overnight. But as CNN misleadingly attacks President Obama for high gas prices, it should remember that investments in high-speed rail are an important step towards a more sustainable and affordable transportation system.