High-Speed Rail Critics Question President Obama's $53 Billion Plan

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Cox and fellow analyst Joseph Vranich wrote a 2008 study that examined the economics of California's proposed high-speed system, which, when finished, would link Sacramento with San Diego and with cities in between. In 2008, the estimated cost was $33 billion. Now, as of a few days ago, said CARRD (Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design), that figure has climbed, by their estimate, to at $65 billion.

At a time when state and federal finances are precarious, ask critics, how can such expenditures be justified -- especially when the U.S. has an already-paid-for transportation infrastructure that gets most travelers anywhere they want, domestically, in a single day?

Part of what makes high-speed rail costly to build, said Leslie McCarthy of the College of Engineering at Villanova University, is the need to secure new right of ways: The twists, turns and tacks of old rail beds may not support the demands of trains far faster than the ones for which they originally were designed.

Florida's proposed high-speed corridor already has a right of way, giving it a huge leg up.

Eugene "Gene" Skoropowski, director of rail and transit services for HNTB Corporation, which has management of the project, said Florida is in the best position of any state to implement a European-style system.

"Thirty percent of the engineering has been done," he said. "The cost estimates have been done. We believe we have all the necessary capital."

Construction on the first segment, linking Tampa and Orlando with trains traveling at close to 200 mph, could start as early as the first quarter of next year.

Skoropowski has little use for high-speed rail's critics.

The Erie Canal, the interstate highway system, and the nation's air travel infrastructure -- they were expensive, too, he said.

Conservatives, he added, are always calling for consumers to have more options and more choice. Services like Florida's, he said, will provide "a new travel choice to a big chunk of our population."

For system-builders less fortunate than Florida's, new technology may obviate the need to buy new right of ways.

Richard Guest, COO of Fastransit in New York City, said his company has demonstrated a variation of maglev (magnetic levitation) that allows a train to travel at high speeds on existing rail beds.

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