Americans returning from trips abroad marvel at high speed rail in other countries, particularly in comparison to what we have to offer here at home. Quickening the commute is a dream of almost every American urban worker, and we have a bit of train envy. Some cities are building the dream, but Full Measure correspondent Joce Sterman found a lot of critics, and billions of your tax dollars that have already run off the rails.
When East met West in the Utah desert 150 years ago, the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in the US opened the country to both travel and transport of goods. It was the beginning of a new age. A century and a half later, Railroads still serve America, but the American commuter is feeling the need, for speed.
Lisa Marie Alley: When we offer them this opportunity to get from LA, if you will, to Palmdale in 17 minutes versus a two and a half hour drive, what's that going to mean for business and for the future?
Lisa Marie Alley is a spokesperson for California's high speed rail authority. In 2008, the state's voters gave the go- ahead to finance the massive project, but it's taken almost a decade for construction to start, on a 520 mile high speed train system connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles. Once complete, the bullet train will ride along this track, cutting the six hour trip by more than half. It's considered the future of travel in the United States, but a future built on the backs of US taxpayers, with more than three billion dollars invested so far.
Congressman Kevin McCarthy: To date the project in California has been the biggest recipient of federal money, billions of dollars.
Republican House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy calls the rail project a boondoggle. California Democrats, including US senator Dianne Feinstein are backing hundreds of millions in additional money. McCarthy says it should be stopped immediately. He's been a vocal critic as far back as 2012.
Congressman Kevin McCarthy: I know Hollywood happens to be in California but this is not a Kevin Costner movie. If we build it, I don't know if they will come. And that is not how we play with taxpayers money.
Near Fresno, the foundation is being laid for the system, viaducts and crossings being built. But it will be nearly a decade before riders can hit the rails. A federal railroad administration report cited by lawmakers called the project over budget and behind schedule.
Lisa Marie Alley: I would disagree we're behind schedule or over budget. We always have to predict what our budget is gonna be. We anticipate right now our system will cost 64 billion dollars. And I know people think it's the Christmas morning scenario where after we voted for this, we're gonna wake up and it's done. But these things take time.
Alley says the high speed rail project has already created hundreds of construction jobs and put businesses from 35 states to work. California isn't the only state with plans for high speed rail projects. They have also been launched in Texas and along the East Coast where new train technology could ease the nightmare of snarled highways on the busy Mid-Atlantic corridor.
Wayne Rogers: One of the things I think is important is not just look at it like a fast train. What we're really doing is shrinking geography. We're taking all the cities between Washington and New York and shrinking them down to one hour between all of those. So with that, it's going to change where you live, it changes where you work.
Wayne Rogers is the CEO of Northeast Maglev. That's the transport technology that floats trains on a magnetic field. It is what speeds passengers in places like Germany and Japan.28 million was awarded by the FRA just to study the impact of a Maglev train in the Northeast. That project has a unique pledge from the Japanese to cover half the estimated 10 billion dollar cost. Rogers says they'll need a mix of funding to cover the rest, leaning heavily on private investors, just like California. Texas says it won't seek any public funds.
Wayne Rogers: I think everyone can agree the private sector can do it faster, do it cheaper than the government would. So in our case it's privately led but that doesn't mean there's no role for government whatsoever. Everybody's gonna work together, multiple states to get this done.
Joce: And have you secured specific private funders for this project yet?
Wayne Rogers: We have some that are doing that right now. Obviously as you get to the next stages you would need more and more money as it develops.
In Fresno, where California dreaming of high speed trains has finally moved from plans to concrete platforms, it's a long track ahead, to find the funds to finish the job.
Joce: Does the project have any firm investors locked down ready to fund this project and make sure it can be sustained?
Lisa Marie Alley: So we're not at that point to have those types of commitments. We need to get our system up and running. That's what attracts the private sector funding.
Rail projects launched under President Obama have been left to seek ongoing support from the Trump administration which has so far offered no public endorsement. And some in California claim the whole concept, for now has run off the rails. Shawn Steel is the former Chairman of California's Republican party.
Shawn Steel: The theory is well, we've put so much money in, we've got to keep going. No! That's the wrong idea. It's a failed concept in the first place. So the proper thing to do is stop the bleeding, because it's the old adage if you're in a hole, the first thing you've got to do is stop digging.