President Obama, it seems, has just stiffed Illinois and the Midwest on high-speed rail. A lot of people hereabouts will be crying over this let-down. The rest of us -- people who really care about the long-term future of the region -- should send the president a big thank-you card.
Obama, coming off his State of the Union message, went to Tampa, Florida, to announce $8 billion in grants to develop the first American high-speed, intercity rail service -- basically 13 separate "rail corridors" between major cities. The president said this would be a big job-creator. At least 30 rail manufacturers are bidding for contracts, he said.
Of this money, Illinois is to get about $1.23 billion, to start building a line between Chicago and St. Louis -- actually, mostly tracks and other infrastructure between Alton, outside St. Louis, and Dwight, south of Chicago. Wisconsin is to get another $823 million for a Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison project.
This sounds like a lot of money. It also sounds like a victory for both Illinois and Wisconsin, two hard-hit states who need all the federal funds they can get. Actually, it's both a defeat and a victory.
It's a defeat for Illinois officials, including Gov. Pat Quinn, who had hoped to get about twice as much -- $2 billion to $2.5 billion -- to start work on passenger service between Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and other cities. The state's application had asked for $4.5 billion.The actual money is much less.
But it's a victory for more far-sighted people who know that the plans Quinn and others had in mind that would lock Illinois and the Midwest into a Toonerville Trolley system, a 110-miles-per-hour version of the true high-speed rail that much of the rest of the world, from China to France, already has in place.
At least one recipient of the federal fund plans to go straight to true high-speed trail. California is to get $2.25 billion for a 220-mile-per-hour connector between Los Angeles and San Francisco. This means that the Midwest, which desperately needs to join the 21st century economy, had actually planned to install a system that would have left it in California's dust.
It seems that the goal here was jobs, not economic competitiveness. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) the highest-ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee, got it right when he said that "the Midwest routes chosen........were selected more for political reasons than for high-speed service."
We wrote about this short-sightedeness in a recent post. To recap briefly:
There are really two different version of high-speed rail under consideration. One deserves the name, the other doesn't. Most of the money allocated by Obama will go to the ersatz version.
This version foresees passenger trains going up to 110 miles an hour, with an average speed of 78 miles per hour. True high-speed rail -- the service that other countries have been taking for granted for years now -- has trains that go twice as fast, up to 220 miles per hour, with an average speed of 150 miles per hour.
In other words, the plans now on the Midwestern drawing board would condemn the region to move at 110 miles per hour in a 220-mph world.
Eventually, as Quinn himself says, it will be necessary to institute true high speed rail. But for reasons that defy logic, the Midwest seems content to walk now before it runs, wasting money on an inadequate system and delaying the day when it can highball along with the rest of the world, and truly tie the major cities of the region into an economically competitive network.
The inadequacy is apparent when one compares travel times on the Chicago-to-St. Louis route, the line most under discussion now. Right now, Amtrak takes five hours and 20 minutes to go the 300 miles between the two cities. That is, when it's on time, which it usually isn't. This works out to an average speed of 55 miles per hour. Actually, an hour of this travel time is taken up with a crawl into St. Louis from Alton, Ill., a town less than 10 miles away. This means that the current travel time between Chicago and Alton is closer to 68 miles per hour.
Under the current plan, average speeds would be increased by 10 miles per hour, to 78 mph. This is underwhelming. This means taking a fourth-rate service and making it third-rate. Why bother? It's just as quick to drive, and it's a lot quicker to fly. Even the faster train wouldn't be competitive.
A true high-speed train could zip from Chicago to St. Louis in two hours. This would cut more than an hour off the door-to-door flying time. This is competitive.
The allocation for Wisconsin would go to build a line between Milwaukee and Madison, plus upgrade the Amtrak line between Chicago and Milwaukee. This latter is a place where 110-mph service makes sense. The current Amtrak Hiawatha line covers the 90-mile trip in an hour and a half. No 220-mph train makes sense for this short trip. But a 110-mph train could cut this trip to an hour and turn Chicago and Milwaukee into what they really are -- part of the same economic area, virtually part of the same city. It would make it easier for people to live in Milwaukee and work in Chicago, or vice versa, to the benefit of both.
Other parts of Obama's rail package envisage extending service from Madison to Minneapolis, from Cleveland to CIncinnati, and from Chicago to Detroit. None of this involves 220-mph service.
But as Rep. Mica said, all this is intended to be short-term job creation, not long-term economic transformation. Given an opportunity to build a 21st-century version of the interstate highway system, the Midwest has decided instead to waste the money on a gussied-up Amtrak. Politics has trumped economics, and we'll be paying for this for years.
The good news from Tampa is that Illinois and the rest of the Midwest has less money to waste than it hoped to have. It can use this money to create some short-term jobs -- no bad thing right now. And it can use part of the money to go back to the drawing board, working with other Midwestern states and cities to start planning a true high-speed network that would truly make the Midwest the region it really is.