High-Speed Rail and Federalism

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Florida Governor Rick Scott deserves a big round of applause for dealing a major setback to the Obama administration’s costly plan for a national system of high-speed rail. As Randal O’Toole explains, the administration needed Florida to keep the $2.4 billion it was awarded to build a high-speed Orlando-to-Tampa line in order to build “momentum” for its plan. Instead, Scott put the interests of his taxpayers first and told the administration “no thanks.”

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the administration is going to dole the money back out to 22 passenger-rail projects in other states. Florida taxpayers were spared their state’s share of maintaining the line, but they’re still going to be forced to help foot the bill for passenger-rail projects in other states.

Here’s Randal’s summary:

Instead, the Department of Transportation gave nearly $1 billion of the $2.4 billion to Amtrak and states in the Northeast Corridor to replace worn out infrastructure and slightly speed up trains in that corridor, as well as connecting routes such as New Haven to Hartford and New York to Albany. Most of the rest of the money went to Midwestern states—Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, and Missouri—to buy new trains, improve stations, and do engineering studies of a few corridors such as the vital Minneapolis-to-Duluth corridor. Trains going an average of 57 mph instead of 52 mph are not going to inspire the public to spend $53 billion more on high-speed rail.

The administration did give California $300 million for its high-speed rail program. But, with that grant, the state still has only about 10 percent of the $65 billion estimated cost of a San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line, and there is no more money in the till. If the $300 million is ever spent, it will be for a 220-mph train to nowhere in California’s Central Valley.

Why should Floridians be taxed by the federal government to pay for passenger-rail in the northeast? If the states in the Northeast Corridor want to pick up the subsidy tab from the federal government, go for it. (I argue in a Cato essay on Amtrak that if the Northeast Corridor possesses the population density to support passenger-rail then it should just be privatized.)

I don’t know if taxpayers in the Northeast Corridor would want to pick up the federal government’s share of the subsidies, but I’m pretty sure California taxpayers wouldn’t be interested in footing the entire $65 billion for their state’s high-speed boondoggle-in-the-works. As I’ve discussed before, the agitators for a national system of high-speed rail know this:

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.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, congressional Republicans aren’t happy that the administration is taking Florida’s money and spreading it around the country:

Monday’s announcement drew criticism from House Republican leaders, who questioned both the decision to divide the money into nearly two-dozen grants around the country—instead of concentrating it into fewer major projects—and the fact that many of the projects will benefit Amtrak, the federally subsidized passenger-rail operator.

I heartily agree with the Amtrak complaint, but I’m not sure why as a federal taxpayer I should feel better about instead “concentrating [the money] into fewer major projects.” Subsidizing passenger-rail is no more a proper role of the federal government than education or housing. Unfortunately, for all the criticisms of the Obama administrations and the constant talk about spending cuts, Republicans don’t appear to possess much more desire to limit the scope of the federal government’s activities than the Democrats.

See this Cato essay for more on fiscal federalism.