The American President Proposes a High-Speed Train

First Stop: Tampa, Florida

Less than 24 hours after his State of the Union speech, the president scheduled a trip on Thursday, January 28, to the northern region of Florida, which swung in his favor in 2008. His goal is to show the role of the government in creating jobs, now ranked number one in his priorities. “I want a jobs bill on my desk without delay,” he told Congress in his speech.

Beside him, in Tampa, should have been Charlie Crist, the Republican governor who heavily owes his election victory to the $787 billion recovery plan. A candidate for the senate, Mr. Crist is facing a difficult primary. His opponent, Marco Rubio, made a breakthrough with the support of activists from the popularist “Tea Party” movement, which, after Massachusetts, hopes to win another moderate bastion.

The president does not come without gifts. He will announce the recipients, including Florida, of funds to develop a high speed train project in the United States. This was a decision long overdue. It has finally been made. In a country that has built only roads over the past half-century, Mr. Obama hopes to “transform the way Americans travel.” “There’s no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains,” he repeated during his speech.

Eleven “Corridors”

The project was launched with great fanfare on April 16, 2009. From California to Florida, a Houston-Dallas or Chicago-Minneapolis line, the White House identified eleven “corridors” which could be developed for high speed trains and promised $8 billion to be distributed among the best projects. Ray LaHood, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, assured that Mr. Obama would rise to posterity as the “president of high-speed trains.”

Since then, states have submitted 259 project proposals and asked for a total assistance of $57 billion. Strangled by the crisis, they were a little disappointed. The money promised by the administration will only cover a portion of the resources needed to equip a network where the fastest trains run at speeds up to 175 km/h. To construct a single line in California should cost $45 billion.

Instead of building new railways, some areas are considering reducing their ambitions by modernizing the existing structures. “This is the debate we had in France in the 1970s,” said French Secretary of State Dominique Bussereau in mid-December, coming to Washington to “sell” the French know-how after trying Strasbourg’s high speed train in May (France, Spain and others are engaged in a fierce competition for potential markets).

In Florida, the project chosen by the government ($2.6 billion) is for the Tampa-Orlando route, a short stretch (130 km) but much less expensive than California. Nearly 23,000 jobs are expected. This is not necessarily the most populous “corridor” in the country, but the project is old; the land has already been acquired.

Mr. Obama must take an absolutely skeptical view in ensuring the stimulus has some effect on job creation, and we cannot find a better example of a president that seeks to restart.

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