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Obama wants more funding for high-speed rail, but is money enough?

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  January 29, 2011 10:55 AM

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More federal money for high-speed rail may be on the way — but does the law need to change for such big projects to get built?

After handing out $8 billion in stimulus money for high-speed rail, President Obama called for more funding for fast trains during his State of the Union address on Tuesday, a proposal Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson praises on the op-ed page today.

But some rail advocates have argued that simply funneling more federal largesse into rail isn't enough. Building a high-speed network in the United States, they suggest, may also require the politically tricky task of altering the environmental laws that have often made building new train lines so difficult.

In California, Robert Cruickshank wrote in 2009, a plan to build a high-speed line between San Francisco and Los Angeles that had already lined up more than $9 billion in financing had to grapple with state laws empowering a handful of wealthy communities to hold up the entire project. (Since 2009, California High-Speed Rail has acquired both more money and more problems.) Nationally, Robert Goodspeed wrote, the process for planning and siting rail lines is "dysfunctional."

Tension between the nation's long-term environmental priorities and local concerns is familiar to Massachusetts from the Cape Wind saga. Despite the clamor on the national level for more green energy, environmental laws enacted in response to planning excesses of the 1950s and 1960s can slow projects to a crawl: Cape Wind took nine years to win permits.

Which is why on high-speed rail, comparisons to countries like France and China that only take financing into account can be misleading. France's government has strong central planning authority; China's government is a dictatorship that can build wherever it wants. At the least, debate over the future of high-speed rail in the U.S. may need to take into account why it's more challenging here.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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