November Nail in Rail Coffin?

October 11, 2010

The New York Times offers an unintentionally hopeful story on Republican candidates running for governor who could become significant obstacles for the Obama administration’s high-speed rail agenda.

As I recently discussed, Wisconsin GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker has taken the position that Washington can keep the $810 million it allocated for a “high-speed” rail line between Madison and Milwaukee that would operate at speeds achieved in the 1930s. The Times article shows that Walker isn’t alone:

Similar concerns are threatening to stall many of the nation’s biggest train projects. In Ohio, the Republican candidate for governor, John Kasich, is vowing to kill a $400 million federal stimulus project to link Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati by rail. In Florida, Rick Scott, the Republican candidate for governor, has questioned whether the state should invest in the planned rail line from Orlando to Tampa. The state got $1.25 billion in federal stimulus money for the project, but it will cost at least twice that much to complete.

And the nation’s most ambitious high-speed rail project, California’s $45 billion plan to link Los Angeles and San Francisco with trains that would go up to 220 miles per hour, could be delayed if Meg Whitman, a Republican, is elected governor. “In the face of the state’s current fiscal crisis, Meg doesn’t believe we can afford the costs associated with new high-speed rail at this time,” said Tucker Bounds, a campaign spokesman.

Whitman is right: California can’t afford high-speed rail, nor can the rest of the country. A Cato essay on high-speed rail notes that it would cost around $1 trillion to build a nationwide system of high-speed rail. That’s a lot of other people’s money to spend on a mode of transportation that “would not likely capture more than about 1 percent of the nation’s market for passenger travel.” 

Randal O’Toole nicely sums up why high-speed rail doesn’t make any sense: 

The history of transportation shows that we adopt new technologies when they are faster, more convenient, and less expensive than the technologies they replace. High-speed rail is slower than flying, less convenient than driving, and far more expensive than either one. As a result, it will never serve more than a few marginal travelers. 

In the meantime, Amtrak – the poster child for bad federal transportation ideas – recently unveiled a $117 billion, 30-year “vision” for high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor. 

From the Washington Post

At a news conference at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station on Tuesday, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman said the proposal is at the visionary stage, and there’s no funding plan in place. It aims for high-speed rail by 2040. 

Of course Amtrak has no funding in place – it depends on taxpayer subsidies to remain in operation! 

As a series of Cato essays on the Department of Transportation demonstrates, policymakers should be focusing on getting the private sector more involved in the financing and operation of transportation.



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