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Will High-Speed Rail Funds Get Spread Too Thin?

So it looks like tomorrow, after the State of the Union, President Obama is planning to announce how the $8 billion in stimulus money for high-speed rail projects will get spent. As noted earlier, a line between Tampa Bay and Orlando will probably be the first lucky recipient, getting federal funds to supplant private investment. But what about the rest?

According to Bloomberg, the Obama administration may end up distributing the funds far and wide—hitting 13 projects across 31 states in total, mostly for incremental improvements to existing lines. But is that spreading the money too thinly? In a new paper from the Progressive Policy Institute, Mark Reutter argues that high-speed passenger rail has never taken off in the United States precisely because Congress has always sprinkled money across as many states as possible—ensuring that no single HSR project gets enough funding to become viable. It might make more sense to concentrate funds on just a few mid-sized HSR projects (like the Tampa-Orlando line), and prove that they can work, rather than hedging on dozens of smaller projects that never quite get off the ground.

And where are the optimal places for high-speed rail? Wired has a nice map looking at the five most promising networks—in Florida, California, Texas, the Northeast, and the Midwest. All of those regions have the population and geography to support viable HSR lines right now, though they all have challenges, too. A Midwest rail system, for instance, would have to be built atop an existing freight network that would limit top speeds; meanwhile, Texas's sprawling cities are less than ideal for rail. Still, if you wanted to bet on one or two successful projects to show that HSR really can work in the United States, those might be good picks. But we'll see what the administration decides on Thursday.

(Flickr photo credit: hiradong83)