On Tuesday, Vice President and rail aficionado Joe Biden proposed $53 billion to follow up on President Obama's plan to give 80 percent of Americans access to rail (both high-speed and traditional-speed) over the next 25 years. There could be up to $8 billion in the proposed 2012 budget, which Obama will unveil next week.

No sooner than Biden’s announcement was made, there was pushback from politicians, including those who generally support trains. Rep. John Mica (R-FL), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, questioned the strategy.

“This is like giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio,” Mica said in a statement.

There are two simultaneous debates happening around trains. One is building true high-speed rail system, which currently does not exist in the U.S. The other is over the question of whether the government should invest in a crumbling, poorly managed Amtrak system (hence the Madoff analogy). Unfortunately, both of these discussions often get lumped under the category “high-speed rail,” when few of the proposed projects actually meet the modern definition that the rest of the world adheres to. The rest of the plans are really just about giving the rest of the nation’s rail system a shot in the arm.
The current proposal breaks down into three types of rail: regional rail that runs 90 to 125 mph, true high-speed rail that coasts between 125 and 250 mph, and corridors that speed along up to 90 mph. Note that two out of three of those categories are just regular, modern trains.

Mica did not go as far as calling it a boondoggle, and his point of contention with Amtrak has merit. Would it be better to truly invest in projects that will see the most benefit, by cutting down on local air traffic and relieving congested corridors, rather than funding dozens of projects across the country that bring minimal gains?

High-speed trains cost more to build (to truly run at 150 mph, you need a dedicated, grade-separated track like the one that California has proposed), but they can charge more per ticket and can displace airport congestion, saving taxpayer dollars. In many parts of the world, these systems pay for themselves and boost local economies.

"In a global economy, we can't forget that infrastructure also functions as the veins and the arteries of commerce," Biden said.

Acela was the only project that came out of President Clinton’s proposed funding for high-speed rail networks back in the 1990s, but it was ultimately hogtied by legislation -- and by Amtrak’s bottom line. Even though Acela only reaches 140 mph, its top speed, on two brief stretches of its line between Boston and Washington, D.C., it still turns a profit. Biden said on Tuesday that twice as many people travel by train between New York and Washington, D.C. as they do by airplane. Now just imagine if Acela was actually a high-speed rail zipping along at 100 to 140 mph for most of the trip, not hampered by freight and local trains (we will not discuss curvature of the track here; while it is one problem, it is not truly what keeps the train from operating much more efficiently).

On the other side of the debate is the rest of the country between the two coasts. If funding projects that only go a little faster than cars sounds like a waste of money, consider the fact that as a barrel of oil reached $90 in 2007, Amtrak travel in the Midwest was up 26 percent. Overall, national ridership that same year was up 11 percent. In Texas, the non-profit Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation is clamoring for new car stock to rebuild a crumbling rail infrastructure that is hampered by sharing its line with freight. The Midwest says it desperately needs new rail lines, as well

For high-speed rail to move forward, Mica and others are right to look to the private sector and find a way for rail to be an appealing investment. Perhaps starting with highly trafficked corridors that will make the case for such investment is the way to go before building a 90-mph train between Tampa and Orlando.

“The Administration continues to fail in attracting private investment, capital and the experience to properly develop and cost-effectively operate true high-speed rail,” Railroads Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) said in a statement.

However, the conversation could easily devolve into a chicken vs. egg debate. In California, the high-speed rail line that is proposed from Los Angeles to San Francisco is intended to be a public-private partnership. The California High-Speed Rail Authority, however, does not anticipate that the private sector will get involved until the government also makes a commitment.

Ultimately, there probably will be interest in some projects sited in densely populated areas like California and the Northeast corridor, but the Republican stance could jeopardize corporations' willingness to step up in places like Wisconsin, where the newly-elected Governor just rejected rail money. If there were zero backing from local politicians and the feds, why would companies want to invest? In areas where basic infrastructure is so badly needed, will private money come pick up the tab when Amtrak won’t?

Overhauling Amtrak and bringing in private investment will be key to getting real high-speed rail up and running in the next fifteen years instead of the next fifty years. However, it will be imperative that any call for private investment also comes along with federal support to see the projects through. And many rail supporters agree that once there are one or two well-functioning high-speed rail lines stateside, more will come.