Out of Control Policy Blog

Congress Kills High-Speed Rail but Advocates Vow to Keep Fighting for Funds

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have voted to eliminate any funding specifically for high-speed rail. However, wasteful rail funding could continue in other ways. The Associated Press provides the details. (Indented paragraphs are the text of the story; left aligned paragraphs are my comments.)

Congress voted to kill funds for President Barack Obama's signature high-speed rail program, but the initiative may have some life in it still.

[B]illions of dollars still in the pipeline will ensure work will continue on some projects. And it's still possible money from another transportation grant program can be steered to high-speed trains.

[Bud] Shuster and the Transportation Committee's chairman, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., say the future of high-speed rail in the U.S. is in the Northeast rail corridor, which connects Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, rather than the national network of trains envisioned by Obama.

But Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., an Obama ally and high-speed rail supporter, said he is confident some money will be found to keep Obama's train program going through the Transportation Department's TIGER program, which makes grants to projects that achieve critical national objectives.

Finding money for a bad program is a political not a policy argument. Leaders also found a way to fund the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska.

Since Obama took office in 2009, his administration has steered $10.1 billion to high-speed rail projects around the country. Some of the money is only now being used because of the time it takes to start up a major grant program and because the program suffered setbacks when several GOP governors canceled projects in their states that had been awarded funds. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Wednesday that he expects more than $1 billion in high-speed rail construction-related activity across the country next year. 

With Ray LaHood stepping down in early 2013 regardless of whether President Obama wins re-election, transportation priorities may change.

The biggest project is in California, where the state is proposing Europe-style bullet trains traveling up to 220 mph between San Francisco and Anaheim.

A new estimate and schedule released this month pegged the cost at just under $100 billion and pushed completion to 2034.

The high-speed rail lobby is still living in Fantasyland.

"What's frustrating about Congress passing no new funding this year is that it adds uncertainty to federal funding," said Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, an urban planning and infrastructure advocacy group. "That isn't helpful to projects like California that rely on a certain amount of federal funding. Some time in the next few years they will need Congress to vote for more money for rail, but it doesn't kill the project that Congress zeroed out funding this year," Todorovich said.

Anthony Perl, chairman of the Transportation Research Board's rail group, said that even if Obama's program collapses, it's "still highly likely" a national high-speed rail network will be built in coming decades, partly because the price of oil is expected to continue to increase.

What is “frustrating” to most Americans is the net cost of high-speed rail. The California project’s construction costs grew from $45 billion to $100 billion. The earliest the project can be completed is 2034. Many believe the real price with be much higher.

What is “still highly likely” is that we will waste even more funding on a national network that will never meet ridership estimates.

High-speed rail is not successful in European and Asian countries that have built it. Only two high-speed lines anywhere in the world break even. And on these two, Tokyo-Osaka and Paris-Lyon, it is unknown if these lines are actually profitable or appear profitable becomes of accounting gimmicks.

European and Asian countries with high-speed rail differ in substantial ways from the U.S. These countries have higher ridership on conventional rail. These countries built high-speed rail to relieve over-crowding on existing rail lines not to induce a switch from car or plane to train. Most countries with high-speed rail have twice the population density of the U.S. Many residents can walk to rail. Outside of New York this is not the spatial structure of the U.S.

Even in countries with extensive high-speed and conventional rail operations, less than 10% of all travel is by rail; ninety percent is by car and plane. In addition, high-speed rail is expensive. High-speed rail tickets in Europe and Asia are typically more expensive than plane tickets, sometimes 2-3 times as much. Traveling from point A to point B takes twice as long on high-speed rail than it does by plane.

If high-speed rail is not successful in countries with geographical and cultural advantages to the U.S, how can it possibly be successful in the U.S? 

It is time for the President, the high-speed rail lobby, and the other politicians who have drunk the cool-aid to step back and honestly analyze high-speed rail. It simply does not make sense. We need to stop wasting our limited transportation dollars on a technology that is not practical. We need to invest our resources in effective transportation projects.

Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


« Congestion is a Problem in… | Main | Cheap Fed Cash for Banks,… »




Out of Control Policy Archives