Congress, governors nix Obama's high-speed trains
They know high-speed rail doesn’t make sense for America

White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke look out a window at Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier during a flight aboard Air Force One from Los Angeles, Calif., to Seattle, Wash., Aug. 17, 2010.

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  • Cost overruns have been standard operating procedure in high-speed-rail projects around the world @MichaelBarone

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  • High-speed rail is futuristic in the same way as Disney’s original Tomorrowland @MichaelBarone

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  • Putting high-speed-rail lines all over the country shows an under-appreciation of American geography @MichaelBarone

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Dead. Kaput. Through. Finished. Washed up. Gone-zo.

That, I think, is a fair description of the Obama administration’s attempt to build high-speed-rail lines across America.

It hasn’t failed because of a lack of willingness to pony up money. The Obama Democrats’ February 2009 stimulus package included $8 billion for high-speed-rail projects. The Democratic Congress appropriated another $2.5 billion.

"If not having one is the price to be paid for the demise of the Obama high-speed-rail boondoggle, I’m happy to pay it." -- Michael Barone

But Congress is turning off the spigot. The Republican-controlled House has appropriated zero dollars for high-speed rail. The Democratic-majority Senate Appropriations Committee has appropriated $100 million in its budget recommendation.

That’s effectively “a vote of ‘no confidence’ to President Obama’s infrastructure initiative,” concludes transportation analyst Ken Orski, “a bipartisan signal that Congress has no appetite for pouring more money into a venture that many lawmakers have come to view as a poster child for wasteful spending.”

The Transportation Department is struggling to push some of the previously appropriated money out the door. Some $480 million of planning, engineering, and construction grants were made to eleven state governments in September.

But this doesn’t build many rail lines, and with one exception, none of them is really high-speed, like France’s TGV or Japan’s bullet train. The governors of Wisconsin and Ohio nixed train lines that wouldn’t provide faster service than current parallel interstate highways. The governor of Florida cancelled a faster line between Orlando and Tampa, which are only 90 miles apart.

The one remaining project that really promises high-speed-rail travel, in California, faces cost overruns that would be astonishing — except for the fact that cost overruns have been standard operating procedure in high-speed-rail projects around the world.

The feds insist California build a 160-mile segment in the Central Valley that is estimated to cost at least $10 billion and will have virtually no riders. The estimated cost of the whole project has zoomed from $43 billion to $67 billion, and there seems to be no prospect of any more public or private-sector money.

Obama has rhapsodized about the wonders of getting on a train across the street from your office and traveling to another city, and he has presented high-speed rail as a technology of the future. But high-speed rail is futuristic in the same way as Disney’s original Tomorrowland. Gee, someday you’ll be able to take frozen peas from your freezer and heat them on your electric range.

Passenger rail is an old technology that is particularly attractive to planners, the folks who want to force us out of our cars and into subways that travel only on the routes they design. Let’s make everyone live the way people do in Manhattan!

This is contrary to the thrust of emerging information technologies, which let us take whatever path on the Internet we want. Sort of like automobiles.

Moreover, the idea that it would be great to put high-speed-rail lines all over the country shows an underappreciation of American geography and of some of the nation’s genuine strengths.

High-speed rail can compete with air travel only over limited distances, but the United States is a continent-sized country. Japan and France, as you may have noticed, are a lot smaller.

China, which is continent-sized too, has been building high-speed rail, but it’s cutting back now and slowing down the trains after a bad accident. Brazil, also continent-sized, is dropping plans for a Rio de Janeiro–Sao Paulo line. Its airlines and buses already work fine.

America’s alleged lag in high-speed rail is also a consequence of our excellence in freight rail. Over three decades after Jimmy Carter’s deregulation, freight rail has squeezed out costs and made shipped goods much cheaper for all of us. Europe and Japan have lousy freight rail and pay more for things.

The reason that’s important is that truly high-speed trains cannot use freight tracks. Freight trains travel slower and have a hard time getting out of the way of passenger trains traveling 200 miles per hour. Japan’s bullet train and France’s TGV operate on dedicated tracks specially built for them. That’s expensive.

As a frequent traveler from Washington to New York, I’d love to see a real high-speed train in the Northeast corridor — the only place in the country where it might make economic sense. But if not having one is the price to be paid for the demise of the Obama high-speed-rail boondoggle, I’m happy to pay it.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.

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