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Hypothetically faster than a speeding bullet

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association has an ambitious vision of a 220-mph bullet train that would connect major Midwest cities, reports the Chicago Tribune’s Jon Hilkevitch. But 2011 has already been a terrible year for the politics and federal funding of high-speed rail. Do recent setbacks make a bullet train politically unrealistic?

Working with the Siemens Corporation, the non-profit rail association looked at a number of possibilities for a Midwest bullet train and concluded that the 220-mph train would be the most expensive to build but yield the greatest return investment. Construction of the network is estimated to cost $84 billion — about half the annual price tag of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In return, Midwest residents would have a high-speed network with Chicago as a hub that would reach Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Louis — with a travel time of less than three hours.

That all sounds cool, but it is also sounds unrealistic after the last-minute 2011 federal budget not only eliminated all the $2.5 billion in planned high-speed rail funding but retroactively took away $400 million in unspent money (money originally targeted for a kiboshed Tampa to Orlando rail line). Moreover, the Federal Railroad Administration denied the Illinois Department of Transportation money to simply study the issue of a bullet train network. So at a time when worthy domestic spending programs are being cut left and right, the High Speed Rail association study harkens back to the salad days of early 2009 when President Obama proudly discussed a “vision for high-speed rail.”

I think that the best chance for high-speed rail to make a political comeback is if stimulus-funded projects that did get the green light pay dividends. Illinois is using stimulus dollars to build a 110-mph train between Chicago and St. Louis, and if passengers see the tangible benefits of this in five years, popular momentum could be created for something more ambitious. But in the backpedaling political environment of 2011, a bullet train network seems about as realistic as Mars colonization or national legislation to seriously address climate change.

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