Last month’s Amtrak derailment, which killed eight passengers and injured more than 200, has put a spotlight on what many call an underfunded and outdated rail system. Yet despite the accident, Congress voted June 9 under intense public scrutiny to cut Amtrak’s funding by $242 million. Proponents have justified the cuts with studies that show Amtrak’s long-distance routes to be hemorrhaging money—about $600 million—while shorter, more local routes are generating $357 million in profits. In addition to pushing for the planned cuts, some members of Congress have suggested cutting several long-distance routes altogether.

Although the federal government seems to look unfavorably upon funding rail transportation, the same is not always true at the state level. California Governor Jerry Brown, for example, has sought to facilitate the creation of a high-speed rail system to connect the state’s two nuclei, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. The California high-speed rail would cover the 383-mile distance in less than three hours for an estimated cost of $86 dollars per person, making it one of the world’s most affordable high-speed rails.

In addition to better connecting the state, bullet trains could also alleviate California’s congestion and pollution. In the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air” ranking of the most polluted American cities, California cities took the top 5 spots in all three categories (ozone, short-term, and year-round pollution). Environmentally friendly high-speed rails could offer relief.

However, the rail system is hardly without critics. Seemingly every step of the building process has proved highly controversial, and none has attracted more attention than the rapidly spiraling budget. When California voters initially approved the rail system, the Rail Authority’s estimated price tag was $34 billion; the estimate has now doubled to $68 billion. Non-government estimates have even climbed as high as $117 billion, more than three times the voter-approved budget. Other issues abound. Residents living in the San Fernando Valley have held up the building process by refusing to sell their land—an extremely foreseeable and inexplicably overlooked stumbling block. Environmental activists have also delayed construction, aggressively denouncing the rail system for requiring development in previously undeveloped areas of the state. The legal costs have caused the project’s separate planning budget to increase by 12% and have pushed back construction by two years. Even more troublingly, California lawmakers have actually scaled back oversight, requiring builders to give spending reports once every two years rather than twice every year as originally planned. Still, progress continues. Construction crews have finally begun work on the system that was first approved six years ago, aiming for a 2029 opening date.

There are reasons to hope: Japan, the ultimate success story in high-speed rails, offers a testament to the feasibility of the technology. But what can the federal government learn from California? For now, it is unclear whether the project’s difficulties point to the current undesirability of high-speed rails in the United States or merely the incompetent planning of an overburdened state government.

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