California Governor Jerry Brown, US Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy, and other state and federal officials gathered in Fresno on Tuesday to break ground on America's first rail line dedicated to high-speed passenger trains.
It's one of the nation's most ambitious infrastructure projects currently underway. Yet, by the time it's completed in 2029, the country will remain far behind several European and Asian nations that laid thousands of miles of high-speed track decades ago.
"We're way behind," Andy Kunz, President and CEO of the US High Speed Rail Association told VICE News. "Japan started 50 years ago. We're 30 years behind France."
When completed, California's trains will reach a maximum speed of 220 miles per hour, as it carries passengers from San Francisco, through the Central Valley, and on to Los Angles in three hours.
Despite the lag in ramping up infrastructure, Kunz is happy to finally see progress, telling VICE News: "When you go to these other countries and you ride the trains there and see how easy it is, and people are using them, and you come back here and you have to deal with airlines and congestion, you wonder: What the heck? Who are the advanced nations here?"
California's $68 billion rail project has been beleaguered by delays in financing and opposition from Central Valley landowners.
'We really are coming out of one era and going into another.'
At Tuesday's press gathering, McCarthy explained that the project will improve California's notoriously poor air quality.
"High speed rail can help clean up our air and anchor a 21st century transportation system that kids deserve," she said. "By 2030 California will cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 3.5 million metric tons, thanks to high speed rail. High speed rail is good for our health, it's good for our climate, and it's so good for our economy."
Speakers at the groundbreaking ceremony compared the project to building the Panama Canal, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Hoover Dam. But even on that scale, a US rail project of seems puny compared to China's progress on the same front.
Last month the country's national rail authority announced the launch of 32 new high-speed lines and China has plans for approximately 10,000 miles of high-speed track by 2020. It also wants to export its rail technology around the world, while upgrading parts of its existing rail network in order to accommodate trains capable of reaching 150 miles per hour. Meanwhile, China is building new lines dedicated to passenger trains that reach speeds of 180 miles per hour or more.
In comparison, Amtrak's Acela line in the Northeast tops out 150 miles per hour — for all of 30 miles, averaging 80 miles per hour during 2 hour and 45-minute trip between New York and Washington DC.
Meanwhile, Japan's well-know bullet trains reach speeds of 220 miles per hour, something California won't achieve for another 14 years. Japan now has 1,665 miles of high-speed track, with more over 2,000 more in the planning stage.
France launched its fast train between Paris and Lyon in 1981. In 2013, the system had approximately 1,185 miles of high-speed rail line, with roughly 500 more under construction and 3,000 more planned. Germany and Spain added their own lines in the early 1990s. Spain now has 1,900 miles of high-speed track and Germany has nearly 900.
Taiwan, a land mass smaller than Maryland and Delaware combined, completed a rail line in 2007 that lets riders travel from the north of the country to the south in 90 minutes. South Korea began building its 255-mile high-speed line in 1992.
While American highspeed rail has been stymied by the dominance of car culture, nimby-ism, and a lack of a long-term funding, high-speed rail boosters and some transportation experts share Kunz's optimism.
"We really are coming out of one era and going into another," Art Guzzetti, the vice-president for policy for the American Public Transportation Association told VICE News. "There's no doubt that the past 60 years transportation has been influenced by automobile, and changes are underway."
The Obama Administration has tried to engineer some of those changes, but progress has been slow. "Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail," President Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union address.
In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included $8 billion for passenger rail between cities and Congress approved another $2.5 billion for passenger and high-speed rail for fiscal year 2010. Much of that financing has gone to the California project, which received a total of $4 billion in federal funds as of 2013. The rest has helped upgrade existing rail lines, which are usually shared with freight trains and where speeds are capped at 110 miles per hour.
Full funding for California's high-speed rail line is still uncertain — and it's starting with just a 29-mile section of track in a rural part of the state.
"It's a good day," Guzzetti told VICE News, "because you need these success stories and you need these good examples."
Follow Sarah Jane Keller on Twitter: @sjanekeller