Dodging the High-Speed Bullet Train

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President Obama’s dream of connecting 80 percent of Americans to a high-speed rail line appears to be dead. Congress appropriated $8 billion for high-speed rail in the 2009 stimulus bill and $2 billion more in the 2010 appropriations bill. But, after newly elected governors of Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin rejected high-speed rail projects in those states, Congress declined to include any more funds in 2011 and it is unlikely to spend any more on this boondoggle as long as Republicans have a hold on the House.

What will Americans get for the $10 billion or so already committed?

  • California appears ready to spend $5.5 billion building a 220-mph rail line from Corcoran–a town south of Fresno mainly known for the prison housing Charles Manson–to Borden–a ghost town north of Fresno. Considering that trains were not scheduled to stop in either Corcoran or Borden, this will truly be a train to nowhere.
  • Illinois is spending more than $3 billion adding three trains per day (to the current five) between Chicago and St. Louis and increasing average train speeds from 51.6 to 56.8 mph, saving train travelers a half hour on the current 5.5-hour trip. Illinois hopes to eventually boost average speeds to 72.6 mph, but that will require more money.
  • Washington state is spending $700 million adding two trains per day (to the current three) between Seattle and Portland and increasing average train speeds from 53.4 to 56.1 mph, thus saving rail travelers 10 minutes on the current 3.5-hour journey.
  • North Carolina is spending $545 million adding two trains a day (to the current three) between Charlotte and Raleigh and increasing speeds from 54.1 to 57.7 mph, thus saving travelers 12 minutes on the current 3.2-hour trip.

There are a few other even less-inspiring projects, and the administration has yet to decide what to do with the $2.5 billion that Florida turned back to the feds. But it is clear that the administration’s plan to dazzle Americans with an exciting new infrastructure project comparable to the Interstate Highway System has failed.

When first announced, Obama’s plan was well received by people who had taken high-speed trains in Europe and Japan. Obama’s strategy was to quickly build an 85-mile high-speed line connecting Tampa to Disneyworld in Orlando, which would open before the end of Obama’s presumed second term. This, he hoped, would inspire politicians elsewhere to demand similar lines in their states. He also hoped the fact that China was building a $400-billion high-speed rail network would be a “sputnik moment” forcing Americans to support our own rail system. Rarely mentioned was the total cost of Obama’s plan, though Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood finally offered an estimate of $500 billion.

Reports from Cato, Reason, and others attempted to dampen people’s enthusiasm for this expensive program. The real turning point, however, was the November, 2010 election. Republican gubernatorial candidates in Ohio and Wisconsin promised to kill the trains if elected. However, Rick Scott–the Republican candidate for governor in Florida–the linchpin of Obama’s plan–was on the fence.

The incumbent governor, Charles Crist, wanted to anchor the Tampa-to-Orlando train with light rail in Tampa and commuter rail in Orlando, and to do so light rail was on the ballot in Tampa. A few weeks before the election, Wendell Cox, who had written on high-speed rail for Reason, and I spoke to Tampa Tea Party members and inspired them to fight both the light rail and high-speed rail. Despite being outspent by 50-to-1, light rail opponents prevailed at the polls in November, winning by 58 to 42. The momentum from this victory helped them persuade Scott, who narrowly won the governorship, to kill high-speed rail in February.

In April, National Review Online credited Cato, Reason, Heritage, and the Florida Tea Party with killing high-speed rail. The day after the article appeared, Congressional leaders agreed to zero-out funding for high-speed rail in the 2011 budget. It appears likely that, other than minor improvements to Amtrak’s Boston-to-Washington corridor, high-speed rail is dead, at least for now.

Once the darling of the media, high-speed trains are now closely scrutinized. The New York Times published an op ed calling Obama’s plan “a fast train to nowhere.” Instead of praising China’s high-speed trains, the Washington Post has declared them a “train wreck.”

The big question is California. The state currently has only about 10 percent of the funds it needs to build a line from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Scrambling to close a $28 billion deficit in its 2012 budget, the legislature is not likely to find any more state funds for this megaproject. Unless a miracle occurs, it appears the only added impact of Obama’s dream will be the cost to state taxpayers of running a few extra trains per day in Illinois, North Carolina, and Washington.

See this Cato essay for more on high-speed rail.