High-Speed Money Grab

November 10, 2009

The New York Times reports on the internecine fighting among high-speed rail lobbyists. At stake is $8 billion in stimulus money that the Obama administration views as a down payment on a nationwide high-speed rail network. As the Times notes, “Nothing stirs passions for a massive public-works project like a wad of federal cash.” 

In highlighting the battle between transportation lobby groups, the article sheds light on how legislative sausage gets made in Washington: 
Kuntz defended his U.S. High-Speed Rail Association, saying he started it because he feared high-speed rail would not get the necessary attention from groups that also represent other modes of transportation. 
‘There are a lot of other groups that are promoting high-speed rail, but most are doing it as part of a bigger, broader approach toward sustainable transportation,’ Kuntz said. ‘The problem I had was that none of them were really giving high speed the focus and the priority it needed. It really needed its own champion that was focused 100 percent, rather than 5 or 10 percent like some of these other organizations.’ 
But the broader views of transportation taken by APTA and AASHTO are necessary for success on Capitol Hill, Diridon countered. 
‘If you go to Washington and only say ‘high-speed rail,’ you’re going to irritate the dickens out of the bus operators, the airport operators and everyone else,’ Diridon said. ‘Coalition advocacy is the key to success in Washington. It doesn’t put your congressional leaders at risk. If you convince them to only support one [mode of transportation], they are going to be immediately attacked by the other modes who will think you’re trying to take their money.’ 
APTA’s Guzzetti said the Federal Railroad Administration and other key players in Washington are not confused about which group to work with. ‘I can tell you that in the federal circles it’s more clear, meaning FRA knows who to call and all that,’ Guzzetti said. 
In Washington, resources get allocated by political means, not market mechanisms. It is the clash of competing lobby groups that determines funding levels, not careful cost-benefit analysis with a focus on minimizing risk and maximizing net returns.
Is federal funding of high-speed rail a good idea to begin with? Randal O’Toole doesn’t think so:           
First, before Congress approved the Interstate Highway System, it had a good idea how much it would cost. In contrast, Congress approved $8 billion for high-speed rail without knowing the total cost, which is likely to be at least $90 billion.           
Second, highway users paid for interstate highways, whereas high-speed rail will be almost entirely subsidized by general taxpayers who will rarely use it. 
Third, interstate highways connect all 48 contiguous states and major metropolitan areas. The FRA’s high-speed rail plan consists of six unconnected networks that reach only 33 states and less than two-thirds of the nation’s 100 largest urban areas. 
Fourth, the average American traveled 4,000 miles on interstates in 2007. High-speed rail proponents optimistically estimate that the average American would ride the FRA’s high-speed rail system less than 60 miles per year. 
Finally, interstate highways improved social welfare by increasing highway safety. In contrast, far from saving energy and reducing pollution, high-speed rail would actually increase energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
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