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Obama Administration's Missteps in High-Speed Rail

Baruch Feigenbaum
December 16, 2011, 9:09am

The Obama Administration is turning high-speed rail into a religion. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is too busy spreading the “truth” about high-speed rail to consider whether his rail program is in any way logical. At a recent House of Representatives hearing all that was missing from Secretary LaHood’s speech was a collection plate.

The House of Representatives held the hearing, titled The Federal Railroad Administration’s High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program: Mistakes and Lessons Learned, last week. Several experts who favor a high-speed rail program testified on how the high-speed rail program could become more efficient.

The experts included Ken Orksi, the former Associate Administrator of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (now the Federal Transportation Administration), who is a transportation consultant and Richard Geddes who is Associate Professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University. While I question whether high-speed rail can ever work anywhere in the United States, the administration could certainly improve the program by listening to some constructive criticism

The criticism focused on several main points.

1) The trains are not high-speed: The Administration continues to present the train program as high-speed rail despite the reality that most rail lines will feature incremental improvements in speed. For example, the Chicago to St. Louis average train speed will only increase from 53 miles per hour to 63 miles per hour.

2) The program has no focus: The administration has awarded grants to 32 states. Only a few grants are of a sufficient size to produce any service improvements and most of these improvements are on conventional train service. The northeast corridor, the most realistic corridor for HSR, has received almost no funds.

3) The program needs to use PPP’s and the private sector: The large scale of these projects will require private sector activity. The administration has failed to consider private sector financing or ascertain private investors’ interest.

4) California is a major problem: The administration’s role in the first high-speed rail link between Merced and Bakersfield has been more damaging than helpful. California’s Legislative Analysts’ Office suggested that the first link operate in a more populated areas such as LA-Anaheim or SF-San Jose. The California rail authority asked the USDOT for more flexibility but the USDOT denied the request. According to written documentation from undersecretary Roy Kienitz, “Once major construction is underway, the private sector will have compelling reasons to further invest in construction.”

5) There is no cost-benefit analysis: The benefits (an additional travel option) must be compared to the costs (monetary, environmental, property loss). All revenue streams must be considered including station naming rights and concessions. The administration has not taken any initiative to conduct an accurate cost-benefit analysis or consider additional ways to raise revenue. 

Many non-partisan government agencies including the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office have described the challenges in creating U.S. high-speed rail service and outlined methods that might help the United States create rail. Has the Obama administration considered the challenges? No. Has the administration considered a different approach to rail to make it successful in the U.S? No. 

With pro-high-speed rail types criticizing the government’s rail plans, voters opposing new projects, and California’s rail project spending reaching the stratosphere (now at about $100 billion), why can’t the Obama Administration admit it has made a mistake? High-speed rail is the administration’s religion. Is the President praying to the heavens for high-speed rail money to fall like rain? With the lack of a logical approach divine intervention may be our only chance.


Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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