ObamaRail Picks Up Speed

Bill Scher

The ground-breaking ceremony for California’s high-speed rail system Tuesday was the second major advancement in President Obama’s vision for modernizing America’s train tracks in the last two weeks. At the end of 2014, the Amtrak Vermonter line – connecting Vermont to New York and Washington, D.C. – debuted speedier track and two new Western Massachusetts stations, paving the way for additional daily round-trips and increased ridership.

Both projects could not have advanced without money from Obama’s Recovery Act, otherwise known as the stimulus. And there’s more to come.

As Michael Grunwald reported for Time last year:

By 2017, the program will reduce trip times from Chicago to St. Louis by nearly an hour through upgrades that will increase top speeds from 79 to 110 miles per hour; Chicago to Detroit will get a similar boost. The Department of Transportation says it has [reduced] delays around San Jose, San Diego, Fort Worth and Oklahoma City. It has extended Amtrak service for the first time to Brunswick, Maine, anchoring a thriving downtown revitalization program, and it’s bringing trains to the Illinois towns of Geneseo and Moline for the first time since 1978. It has renovated stations in St. Paul, Minn., and Portland, Ore, and it’s expanding service between Raleigh and Charlotte, where ridership has nearly tripled since 2005.

Aside from California’s $68 billion, 220-mph high-speed network, none of these projects qualify as glitzy game-changers. Obama’s more ambitious high-speed rail plans were thwarted when Republicans governors in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida rejected free federal funds out of spite. 

But while the California system won’t see any riders until 2022 at the earliest, Americans are already benefiting from the other “ObamaRail” upgrades like the faster Vermonter. Annual Amtrak ridership has soared to 31 million, up from 21 million in 2000.

Of course we can and should be doing more. But how? By reminding people that investing taxpayer money in our trains pays off.

Under Obama, we’ve invested less than $3 billion to date. Now more people are taking advantage of clean and convenient train travel, reducing pollution and congestion.

We could be investing a lot more – $53 billion more if Obama got his way – and getting a lot more in return.

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