Acting on his State of the Union pledge to rebuild the nation’s roadways, railways and runways, President Obama is investing another $8 billion in high-speed rail on top of the $10.5 billion “down payment” made last year with, mostly, Recovery Act funds. This is obviously good news for California’s High-Speed Rail Authority, which hasn’t actually built anything yet but plans to very soon.

At a press conference today at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station (the hub of Amtrak’s Keystone Corridor service to Boston, New York and Washington, D.C.), Vice President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood echoed the president’s promise of giving 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years. In all, the administration wants to dedicate $53 billion over the next six years for a national high-speed and intercity passenger rail network. 

The White House says that since track improvements raised speeds between Harrisburg and Philadelphia to 110 mph in 2006, the Keystone Corridor has seen rail ridership rise by 57%. More passengers now travel from Harrisburg to Philadelphia – and from Philadelphia to New York City and Washington D.C. – by rail than by plane.

“As President Obama said in his State of the Union, there are key places where we cannot afford to sacrifice as a nation – one of which is infrastructure,” says Biden. “As a long time Amtrak rider and advocate, I understand the need to invest in a modern rail system that will help connect communities, reduce congestion and create quality,
skilled manufacturing jobs that cannot be outsourced. This plan will help us to do that, while also increasing access to convenient high-speed rail for more Americans.”

LaHood says this commitment
clarifies the long-term federal role in passenger rail, providing states and cities with the certainty they need to make long-term transportation plans for their communities. (Well, “certainty” until the Republicans take over the White House and squash the whole thing.)

Improvements in existing rail corridors are also budgeted in the plan, with the goal of increasing speeds to meet the demands of true high-speed rail service.

Now, obviously the existing rail corridors in the East have a huge passenger base and rail improvements will truly be supported. But out here in the wide-open West, rail service is still in a dream stage. Take, for example, what should be a popular line, Caltrain, which serves the San Francisco Peninsula from San Francisco to San Jose: It is facing a $30 million deficit this year and plans to close up to half of its 32 stations, raise fares (again) and cut service during non-commute hours during weekdays and altogether on weekends. That’s not what you call well supported (nor well-managed, to tell you the truth).

Meanwhile, construction is scheduled to begin on California’s high-speed rail system in 2012, creating nearly 100,000 jobs over five years, according to the authority. In December of 2010, the authority board selected a 120-mi initial construction segment, which spans an area 20 mi north of Fresno south to Bakersfield in the Central Valley. The entire project will feature an 800-mi “true” high-speed train system that will operate at speeds of up to 220 mi per hour, connecting the state’s urban centers, including the Bay Area, Fresno, Los Angeles and San Diego.

I think the one thing that will convince Californians that rail is a viable alternative (even in car-happy LA) is the price of gasoline. Analysts are now saying that the price of gas will rise to $4 a gallon this year and $5 in 2012.