High-Speed Federalism Fight

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In October, I speculated that the upcoming elections could be the nail in the coffin for the Obama administration’s plan for a nationwide system of high-speed rail. Indeed, some notable gubernatorial candidates who ran, in part, on opposition to federal subsidies for HSR in their states proceeded to win. However, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made it clear in a recent speech to HSR supporters that the administration intends to push ahead.

LaHood’s message was targeted specifically to incoming governors John Kasich in Ohio and Scott Walker in Wisconsin, who argued that HSR doesn’t make any economic or practical sense for their states.

LaHood said that states rejecting federal HSR subsidies won’t be able to reroute the money to other uses, such as roads. Instead, LaHood said the rejected money will redistributed “in a professional way in places where the money can be well spent” – i.e., other states. And sure enough, other governors were quick to belly up to the Department of Transportation’s bar in order to grab Ohio and Wisconsin’s share.

From the Columbus-Dispatch:

New York Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo has said he would be happy to take Ohio’s money. Last week, California Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein wrote LaHood saying that California stands ready to take some, too, noting that several states that elected GOP governors this month have said they no longer want to use the rail money for that purpose.

“It has come to our attention that several states plan to cancel their high-speed rail projects. We ask that you withdraw the federal grants to these states and award the funds to states that have made a strong financial commitment to these very important infrastructure projects,” Boxer and Feinstein said in their letter to LaHood.

This is a textbook example of why the Department of Transportation should be eliminated and responsibility for transportation infrastructure returned to state and local governments. If California wishes to pursue a high-speed rail boondoggle, it should do so with its own state taxpayers’ money. Instead, Ohio and Wisconsin taxpayers now face the prospect of being taxed to fund high-speed rail projects in other states.

If California’s beleaguered taxpayers were asked to bear the full cost of financing HSR in their state, they would likely reject it. High-speed rail proponents know this, which is why they agitate to foist a big chunk of the burden onto federal taxpayers. The proponents pretend that HSR rail is in “the national interest,” but as a Cato essay on high-speed rail explains, “high-speed rail would not likely capture more than about 1 percent of the nation’s market for passenger travel.”