In 2010, the US will spend over $660 billion on military operations. Meanwhile, it took a once-in-a-lifetime depression and stimulus bill to get the US to pony up a mere $8 billion for high speed rail. Mind you, that money is not even going to be spent in one year. In fact it will probably take more like 5 or 10 years for that money to actually be spent.
California received the single biggest chunk of stimulus rail money, $2.3 billion, intended to support the planned north-south HSR development. The money is needed, but given, for example, the 20+ years it took the state to rebuild the eastern span of the Bay Bridge, I expect to be old and gray before any of us is able to ride a high speed train from SF to LA. Now, if the funding was more like $10b or $20b, it might be a different story. I doubt $2.3 billion is enough to do more than build a couple miles of track and a few train stations.
Is high-speed rail important to economic development? To quality of life? To culture or the environment? The answer to all of these is YES. High speed rail construction, in itself, is a massive investment, spurring major economic impact. The existence and availability of a safe, comfortable, reliable mass transit option between cities also spurs financial activity. Not to mention stronger connections between people and places, new experiences, and new centers of activity along the rail line. And possibly most importantly, the more non-automobile transportation options we have, the less dependent we are likely to be on fossil fuels.
Railways cost money, like massive only-the-federal-government-could-afford-this money. But the fact is, we as a nation have the money, we have simply chosen to channel almost all of it to building massive armies, occupying desert countries in the middle east, and creating more and more ways to annihilate our foes. Back home, our lock-em-up culture has given us a huge inmate population costing is more hundreds of billions annually.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government is dropping $100 billion A YEAR to establish these vital arteries, as their nation labors ceaselessly to entrench themselves financial superpower. China’s prosperity doesn’t inherently threaten our own, but unless we as a nation take steps to compete, we will through our own lack of action ceeding many advantages we once possessed. If we allow vital infrastructure such as mass transit and broadband to stagnate, we are sure to fall behind. Supertrains are a perfect — but hardly the only — example of this dynamic. Will we ever figure it out?