The Oil and the Glory

So now Richard Branson wants to be a railroad baron, too?

It’s conventional wisdom now that President Barack Obama’s energy program is dead. But it’s looking increasingly likely that the greatest bipartisan motivator of all, money, will preserve at least one of the program’s pillars: high-speed rail. At least that’s the bet being made by Richard Branson, the British airline/mobile phone/music tycoon. Branson’s Virgin Group has ...

ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images
ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images

It’s conventional wisdom now that President Barack Obama’s energy program is dead. But it’s looking increasingly likely that the greatest bipartisan motivator of all, money, will preserve at least one of the program’s pillars: high-speed rail.

At least that’s the bet being made by Richard Branson, the British airline/mobile phone/music tycoon. Branson’s Virgin Group has entered a fierce competition for a $2.6 billion contract to build an 84-mile high-speed rail line from Tampa to Orlando, Fla. with a stop-off in Disney World, writes Gill Plimmer of the Financial Times. That’s a lot of money, and Branson is not just the eighth entrant but also British. So why will the project go through? Even if a foreign company like Branson wins, there would be subcontracts for U.S. companies, in addition to some 48,000 jobs — the number of workers to be employed over the four years of construction.

Given  up for dead following the U.S. midterm elections, in which the GOP grabbed the political momentum in addition to control of the House of Representatives — many of whose Republican members sharply criticized Obama’s rail ideas — this warhorse form of travel appears still to have life in it.

Two Republican governors-designate have said they will reject federal stimulus money for high-speed rail in their states: Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, whose state received $810 million for a system linking Madison and Milwaukee, and Ohio’s John Kasich, who doesn’t want $400 million for a rail line connecting Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus. Both governors say they are talking economics and practicality — their states are budget-poor, and not many people use trains — and have asked Obama whether they can spend the money for roads. But last night, U.S. Transportation Secretary Roy LaHood said he would just give the money to other states that will build rail lines instead.

A veritable scramble for that rejected high-speed rail money may be under way. In New York, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said yesterday that New York may get some of the $10 billion-$12 billion in funding that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has rejected to build a rail tunnel under the Hudson River in his state.

Still, rail evangelists are unlikely to see their full plans materialize. In a conference in New York yesterday, rail advocates sketched out an improbably ambitious, 17,000-mile rail system costing $600 billion over the next two decades, the Washington Post’s Michael Bolden writes.

As for Branson, he has his sights set broadly, it seems. “I think it would be great to have a fast train from Las Vegas to California,” he told Forbes‘s Kym McNicholas.

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