Vote Suggests End of the Line for High-Speed Rail

Published October 10, 2011

With its Sept. 21 vote, the Senate Appropriations Committee ended rail boosters’ hopes of getting a meaningful appropriation for high-speed rail in Fiscal Year 2012. It probably also dealt a decisive blow to President Obama’s goal of “giving 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail.”

By including only a token $100 million for high-speed rail as a “placeholder” in their FY 2012 budget recommendations (a sum likely to be further cut in the House-Senate negotiations on FY 2012 appropriations), Senate appropriators have done more than declare a temporary slowdown in the high-speed rail program. They have effectively given a vote of “no confidence” to the president’s signature infrastructure initiative.

Along with their House counterparts, who had denied the program any new money, the Senate lawmakers have sent 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 government spending.

Little Accomplished

Their posture is understandable. After committing $8 billion in stimulus money and an additional $2.5 billion in regular appropriations, Obama has little to show for it. Aside from an ongoing project to upgrade track between Chicago and St. Louis (a $1.1 billion venture that promises to offer a mere 48-minute reduction in travel time between those two cities), no significant construction has begun on any of the authorized rail projects.

In the meantime, the Department of Transportation has rushed to distribute the balance of the authorized HSR dollars, in case Congress decides to rescind funds that remain unobligated.

Continuing its practice of scattering money far and wide rather than focusing it on one or two worthwhile projects, the Federal Railroad Administration approved in September more than $480 million worth of planning, engineering, and construction grants “to improve high-speed and intercity passenger rail service” in 11 states. The beneficiaries are New York, Texas, Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington State, Oregon, and Pennsylvania.

Backing Off

None of the grants will help to bring true “high-speed” rail service to the United States. At best they will permit modest incremental improvements in speed and frequency of existing Amtrak services by helping to upgrade tracks of Class One railroads on which Amtrak runs its trains.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has dropped its earlier rhetoric that high-speed rail “is just around the corner” (Secretary LaHood’s words) and “80 percent of Americans will have access to high-speed rail” (repeated assertions by LaHood and DOT press releases).

Bullet Train’s Big Problems

Meanwhile, the one true U.S. high-speed rail project—California’s Los Angeles-to-San Francisco bullet train—is beset by mounting political and financial problems.

Less than a year before construction is scheduled to start on the first line segment in the Central Valley, construction costs have doubled beyond the 2008 estimate. There is no evident source of where the additional funds to complete Phase One will come from.

The first stage—a $10 billion to $14 billion, 160-mile segment from Bakersfield to Merced—has run into determined opposition from local residents and farming interests. The possibility of lengthy court challenges could delay construction, thus increasing costs, further eroding political support, and putting federal money at risk.

At the policy level, the project has been subjected to several recent analyses. First came a critical report by California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO). It questioned the Rail Authority’s cost estimates and its decision to build the first segment in a sparsely populated region where travel demand is not expected to be sufficient to cover operating expenses.

Concern about escalating costs and overly optimistic ridership forecasts were echoed by an independent Peer Review Group and numerous newspaper editorials. Even some of the project’s former state-level legislative supporters have begun to express reservations and are urging the Authority to rethink its plan.

Funding Doubts

A more recent challenge to the project’s financial credibility came from a team of respected independent experts, Alain Enthoven, William Grindley, and William Warren, who cooperate with a citizen watchdog group, the Community Coalition on High Speed Rail. The team has concluded that without further federal aid (which almost certainly can no longer be counted upon) the project stands no chance of meeting its legislative requirements and the conditions of the enabling bond initiative (Proposition 1A).

Nor is reliance on private financial participation a credible option. In the authors’ judgment, private risk capital won’t come without revenue guarantees (meaning a public subsidy).

Politically, the most damaging blow to the project has come from a recent opinion survey. According to this poll, nearly two-thirds of California’s likely voters (62.4 percent) would stop the bullet train project from proceeding further. Virtually the same number said they are unlikely ever to travel on the train between Los Angeles and San Francisco, casting doubt on the Authority’s optimistic ridership forecasts.

In addition, the project came in dead last (at 11 percent) in a list of voters’ spending priorities, according to the Irvine-based Probolsky Research polling outfit.

Given the possibility of the California bullet train’s demise, the attention and hopes of high-speed train advocates probably will (and should) turn to the Northeast Corridor—the nation’s most likely travel corridor where high-speed rail can eventually succeed and prosper.

C. Kenneth Orski ([email protected]) is editor and publisher of Innovation NewsBriefs, where a version of this article first appeared. Used with permission.