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Bullet trains could save you from a monster commute. So why are critics saying it's time to bail?


Want to know what it’s like to be an East Coast commuter? Come along on my daily drive and you’ll be quickly welcomed to my own personal hell. Clogged highways between major cities, with thousands of cars joining the journey through traffic on every variation of 95 between Baltimore and Washington: 695, 295, 495, and 395.

I make this face a lot during my commute, which can range from 90 minutes to 2 hours

My commute is about 70 miles each way and although it may sound crazy, it’s actually not that unusual for people who work in and around D.C. And it turns out, all of us could benefit from something that’s in the works not just along the eastern seaboard but also on the West Coast: high-speed rail.

We went to Baltimore to talk with Wayne Rogers as part of a joint project with our partner, "Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson." He’s the CEO of TNEM, the Northeast Maglev Project, the mid-Atlantic’s attempt at high-speed rail.

“One of the things I think is important is not just looking at it like a fast train,” Rogers explained. “What we’re really doing is shrinking geography.”

To frustrated commuters, Rogers would be a dream-maker if he could bring a Maglev train to the congested areas between New York and Washington. Aside from having a weird name, the Japanese SCmaglev technology makes an amazing promise: shortening the trip from the Big Apple to Capitol Hill to just one hour.

“This train is 311 miles an hour, 50 percent faster than anything that’s even dreamed of here, and three-and-a-half to four times as what Amtrak is getting done,” Rogers said. “It’s going to change where you live. It changes where you work.”

It’s easy to get caught up in the idea. But don’t get too excited. High-speed rail on the East Coast won’t happen overnight or even in this decade. Just thinking about it is expensive. The Federal Railroad Administration handed out $28 million just to study the impact of a train like this.

But that sum of money is nothing compared to the funding that’s already been spent on a similar project in California. We took a trip to Fresno, where a high-speed train isn’t just a dream. Construction is already happening there.

It is painstaking work as these crews lay down the foundation of where the tracks will eventually go. It took seven years to get construction started after California voters gave the thumbs up in 2008. And it could still be another decade before there’s a train in operation.

"I know people think it’s the Christmas morning scenario where after we voted for this, we’re going to wake up and it’s done. But these things take time,” explained Lisa Marie Alley, the spokeswoman for the California High Speed Rail Authority.

The agency’s plan is ambitious. They’ve begun a 520-mile rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It’s designed to cut what is currently a six-hour trip by more than half. There are a lot of pros to the project, including the creation of hundreds of job and the use of businesses from 35 states, as well as environmental benefits.

Alley also has to defend the cons. Chief among them are the delays associated with the project and its cost. Alley automatically refutes reports that the effort is behind schedule and over budget, saying, “We anticipate right now our system will cost $64 billion. But if a city wants a different type of viaduct or a community wants something differently, we’re going to work with them to make sure that we’re giving them what works for them.”

The authority is being accommodating, but there are questions, mostly because the project involves federal money. So far, $3 billion in taxpayer funds has been invested in the project. And not everyone launching high-speed rail believes that’s how these projects have to work.

In Texas, another bullet train is also in the works under leadership from Texas Central. That version will run from Houston to Dallas in 90 minutes. So what makes it different? Organizers of the project say they will not seek any public funds. Private dollars only.

D.C. and California will also need private investment if they want to finish their projects. But it’s not easy money to find. Rogers told us TNEM has some funding secured, but Alley said the California authority isn’t there yet.

“We need to get our system up and running. That’s what attracts the private sector and that’s when we believe that they’ll come to the table and see the benefit of the project,” Alley said.

That kind of talk makes lawmakers nervous, including Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who has famously called the California project in his home state a “boondoggle” and recently said it’s time to bail on the effort altogether. That seems unlikely given that hundreds of millions of additional federal money was awarded this year to state rail project that will still benefit the high-speed rail effort.

Other critics bring up Hyperloop, the project that’s made headlines under the leadership of Elon Musk. Those critics wonder why the federal government is spending any public money when Hyperloop could bring private funders and newer technology that goes faster than high-speed rail.

We asked Rogers whether high-speed rail was forward thinking enough. “At this point Hyperloop is an idea, it’s a concept,” he told us. “It’s not really even technology yet. When we look at SCmaglev, it’s gone through 15 years of testing in Japan. It’s received all of its safety approval. It’s been tested over millions of miles going back and forth. So, we know we can bring this technology today.”

But the time frame for the East Cast effort still isn’t concrete. We asked directly when the train will be up and running. We didn’t get a firm answer. So, when should I expect a bullet train to ease my commute? Who knows? In the meantime, I’ll be in my car.

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