States Derailing High-Speed Rail Proposals

Published November 30, 2010

High-speed rail, one of the centerpieces of the Obama administration’s “green stimulus” programs, is coming under fire from a growing number of state officials who say high-speed rail makes little economic or environmental sense for them even with federal subsidies.

The Obama administration has committed to building at least 13 high-speed lines in various parts of the country, and Federal Railroad Administration appropriations from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) hit the $8 billion mark in January 2010.

Elections Turn the Tide
Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle (D) was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of high-speed rail, but Governor-elect Scott Walker (R) won the November election campaigning on a theme of halting high-speed rail plans. With Walker’s election victory, high-speed rail is very unlikely to go forward in the state.

In Florida, a once-popular high speed rail plan suffered a damaging blow when the Orlando Sentinel reported in November that the cheapest ticket between Orlando and Tampa would be $54 round-trip. That price did not include parking fees at the origination train station and bus or cab fare in the destination city. These costs much higher than the cost of a half tank of gasoline that would enable a private automobile to make the same round trip, and the train is unlikely to save drivers time, either.

Florida Governor-elect Rick Scott (R) voiced skepticism toward high-speed rail before the November elections, saying he did not support high speed rail in Florida if the state would have to devote funding for it. Given the governor-elect’s skepticism and large Republican majorities in both houses of the Florida legislature, high-speed rail now appears derailed in Florida.

‘High-Speed Pork’
Adding more embarrassment for high-speed rail advocates, influential columnist Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post labeled California’s rail project as “high-speed pork” that is a drain on government and taxpayers alike.

“Somehow, it’s become fashionable to think that high-speed trains connecting major cities will help ‘save the planet.’ They won’t. They’re a perfect example of wasteful spending masquerading as a respectable social cause. They would further burden already overburdened governments and drain dollars from worthier programs—schools, defense, research,” wrote Samuelson.

Exceptionally High Costs
High-speed rail is one of the most expensive modes of transportation, according to Ron Utt, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. Utt says high-speed rail will never bring high enough benefits to justify the expense.

“Even in a strong economy, building high-speed rail lines makes little sense, offering minimal reductions in travel times at exorbitant costs,” Utt said. “In the current weak economy, moreover, the country cannot afford to squander $8 billion of stimulus funds, plus another $5 billion of ARRA dollars over the next five years, plus the required matching state money.”

Taxpayer Groups Oppose
Taxpayer advocate groups oppose the expenditures, too.

“Although it is a favorite pet project of the Obama administration, high-speed rail has consistently failed to deliver on both its promises of efficient service and job creation,” said Mattie Corrao, government affairs manager for Americans for Tax Reform.

“Promises that high-speed rail will be solvent ignore reality. We have a perfect template for what government-subsidized transportation looks like—Amtrak, which operates consistently in the red and requires generous taxpayer subsidies just to stay afloat,” Corrao said. “Transportation spending in general and high-speed rail in particular are politically popular projects because [they] satiate unions” and placate environmentalists, who “equate mass transportation with greener living,” he added.

Corrao expressed optimism newly elected governors will help turn the political tide against wasteful high-speed rail projects. Gov. Doyle admitted on Nov. 8 his last-minute negotiations with the federal government to sign contracts for high-speed rail before he vacated office were a near-worthless endeavor, Carrao said.

“He admitted he couldn’t enforce nor commit the state to the massive spending required to keep the train running. High-speed rail is quickly losing its star status with state leaders who don’t want to shoulder the burden of ineffective and expensive rail experiments,” Carrao said. “If only the President would get on board as well.”

Cheryl K. Chumley ([email protected]) writes from northern Virginia.