Policymakers' appetite for high-speed rail seems to be dwindling to almost nothing. It is old news that congressional Republicans are not fans of President Obama's high-speed rail initiative. They view it as a waste of taxpayer dollars at a time when belt-tightening is of the highest order. The national conversation has not advanced much beyond that point, perhaps because the biggest fans of high-speed rail are distracted by other problems. Democrats in Congress raised only a faint protest when the fiscal 2012 appropriations bill cut funding for the Transportation Department's high-speed rail program. Republicans who ostensibly like high-speed rail said the cuts will allow rail enthusiasts to start over from scratch.
The problems continue at the state level, particularly in California. The California High Speed Rail Peer Review Group recently refused to recommend that bond money be devoted to the state's high-speed rail plan. The review group said the state's business plan lacked "credible sources of adequate funding" that posed "an immense financial risk" to California. Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown proposed folding the California High-Speed Rail Authority into a broader transportation agency to save money. That move could potentially take some steam out of the state's high-speed rail initiatives as they get lumped in with other transportation priorities. Even so, more than $3.5 billion in federal funding could be at risk if the state Legislature doesn't approve funds for a high-speed rail line, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
High-speed rail investments aren't like economic stimulus programs, which are intended to jump start shovel-ready projects that can immediately inject money into a local economy while delivering jobs and paved roads. The initial costs of developing high-speed rail lines are high, and the yield time is years or decades. Is the country ready for long-term investments like that? Or would it make sense to take a break and allow the economy to recover before proposing big new rail projects? What would make policymakers more receptive to high-speed rail? What critiques of high-speed rail are the most in need of a response?