See America by train (but just the blue parts…) Oil, Republicans, rails and progress **UPDATED**

Now that Florida has bailed out of the national push for high speed rail, the map above will look very different.

Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio were important hubs in an ambitious plan to link this vast country via modern train technology, reducing our dependance on cars and expensive airline tickets, and allowing Americans to efficiently travel America by train.

It’s a romantic vision for the country that’s equal parts retro – building the transcontinental railroad was an important historic component of America’s economic maturing – and hypermodern. Europe and Asia are already way ahead of the United States when it comes to high speed rail, and are busy planning ambitious projects that dwarf even the Obama administratin’s plan. Great Britain for one is hoping to boost its sagging economy through generous investments in rail.

The missed opportunity cannot be underestimated. We are speeding toward the day when among the many ways we are two Americas, will be the extent to which we are a country with modernity largely relegated to the coasts, and a retrograde middle and south that are racing to the bottom in search of low wage jobs. And that is not sustainable.

In spinning Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s refusal to take Florida’s $2.4 billion share of the money allocated for HSR, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (a Republican, by the way) stated that 35 states have accepted the funds (and some of them will split what would have been Florida’s funds.) Politifact rated that claim “half true” (though in the post-Maddow battle world, you have to take Politifact with a bit of a grain of salt.) Politifact stated:

The Tampa-Orlando line was conceived as one of the first legs in what Obama envisioned as a nationwide high-speed rail network. A second line eventually would have connected Orlando and Miami, with future lines connecting Jacksonville to Orlando and Jacksonville to Tallahassee. Eventually, a network of high-speed rail lines would be able to carry passengers from Miami up the eastern seaboard, or as far west as Los Angeles and Seattle, linking 80 percent of the country’s population.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott rejected the money for his share of the network in an announcement on Feb. 16, 2011, joining a group of critics who believe the federal money could be better spent on state road systems, or by not being spent at all. The federal government revoked a $400 million grant to Ohio for high-speed rail after the state’s new governor, John Kasich, said he would not participate. The same thing happened in Wisconsin, where the federal government pulled back $810 million to build a high-speed line between Milwaukee and Madison after newly elected Gov. Scott Walker made it clear that he would not accept the money. All three states received or spent federal dollars on their rail projects before nixing them entirely.

Justin Nisly, a spokesman with the U.S. Department of Transportation, said that, in total, 35 states and the District of Columbia have received federal funding through the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program either as part of the 2009 stimulus or the 2010 grant awards.

Here’s the transportation department’s list of states that received money — Alabama, California, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Nevada, North Carolina, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia, Vermont, Wisconsin, Washington and West Virginia.

That’s 35 states alright. But in going through the list, along with the accompanying grant information the Transportation Department provided (here and here), we found several caveats to LaHood’s claim.

Going through that list, clearly, Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida now have to be deleted. And Politifact says other states, like Kansas, are using their federal grants for “inter-city” projects that don’t technically count as high speed rail. And Wisconsin, whose governor has become notorious for a lot more than rejecting HSR, is using its grant money to upgrade an existing Amtrak line (the same thing that will happen in New Jersey, where Amtrak is propsing to step in as a workaround to Chris Christie’s rejection of federal funds for a transit tunnel betwen New Jersey and Manhattan. Christie, by the way, considers high speed rail and expanding access to high speed internet to be worthless “candy…”) Two states in the upper south are also going forward with rail projects. But when Politifact crunches all of the caveats, they come up with this:

One more interesting point about LaHood’s 35-state claim: It’s not the same number used by the Federal Railroad Administration. On its website, the railroad administration keeps a “current list of High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail project funding.” (A word of caution: You’ll need to install Microsoft Silverlight to view the list. If you’re having trouble, we copied the list and posted it for you to see here.)

The list includes awards to states totaling $4.8 billion, including the first $66 million awarded to Florida as part of its Tampa-Orlando line, and $45 million given to Wisconsin and Ohio before those states pulled out of the program. Excluding Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio, the railroad administration says 15 states and the District of Columbia have been awarded some type of high-speed rail funding. They are: North Carolina, Michigan, Illinois, Colorado, Delaware, Maine, New York, Georgia, Kansas, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Washington, Oregon, California, Vermont and the District of Columbia.

For the record, high-speed rail corridors are still being actively planned in California, in Oregon and Washington, in Illinois, and throughout the northeast.

If in the end, we wind up with a patchwork rail system that will at least, say, allow someone living behind the red line in “cars only” Florida to fly to New York, then make the trip west to Colorado to see their brother, bypassing Ohio (the hub will now presumably go only through Michigan) and then go from Colorado to California to visit their sister… (okay, that part is personal) itwould be better than nothing.

But make no mistake, the Republican governors who are rejecting rail are throwing a significant monkey wrench into the overall vision for nationwide rail. That is in large part because the GOP is now almost completely the property of the oil industry,  which vehemently opposes green technology and anything that would lead Americans out of their non-electric cars. And because in many ways, the Republican party is being directed by the Koch brothers and their ilk, opposition to anything that would limit oil industry profits – from regulation of greenhouse gases to acceptance of the science on global warming, to high speed rail – is an anathema, and to be rigorously opposed.

Ironically, the states who will now be bypassed by rail are forfeiting the economic benefits, including potential increases in tourism, and the jobs created by passenger rail itself.

The U.S. High Speed Rail Association, who produced the map at the top this post, and who have a site up to advocate for nationwide rail, lists the benefits as follows:

Faster, more efficient mobility, enormous energy savings, reduced environmental damage – a train system solves many problems:

• Creates millions of green jobs nationwide building the new rail infrastructure and manufacturing the rail cars
• Pays for itself by significantly reducing our $700 billion a year oil purchase trade deficit
• Offers a convenient, comfortable way to travel without hassles or delays
• A major step toward solving global warming by reducing our oil consumption and emissions
• Drastically reduces our oil addiction and lowers our risk from the coming peak oil crisis
• Lowers our dependence on costly military operations securing oil flow around the world
• Lowers our national security risk, and ends wars for oil
• Freedom from oil – Powered by clean electricity from renewable energy sources: wind, solar, geothermal, ocean/tidal
• Safe, affordable, green transportation for everyone
• Saves lives (43,000 Americans die each year in car accidents)
• Provides efficient mobility that moves people and goods without delay and waste

Are we doomed to become a patchwork country, where the blue states push toward a green future, and the red ones hunker down in the oil patch, insisting that any federal money must go toward entrenching the gas-burning car at the expense of clean rail; and dirty energy, poorer states like Mississippi bleed their economic models into the rust belt?

Elections are choices, and if voters in the swing states don’t choose a different path going forward, they risk voting for disconnection, stagnation, and exempting themselves not just from a faster, cleaner way to see America, but from the very idea of modernity for themselves.

Related: How Republicans are pushing to make states like Wisconsin more like the south

UPDTED: Dave Weigel asks, why do conservatives hate trains so much?

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