Unfortunately, the most recent round of U.S. Department of Transportation rail grants is showing more of the political underbelly of transportation politics than anything else. While the grants themselves are largely pragmatic–they focus on incremental improvements in intercity passenger rail routes–politics is by no means absent from the mix. Randal O’Toole does a stunning job of laying out the rote politics behind discretionary rail transportation spending in a compelling oped for the Detroit News (May 12, 2011).
Michigan received $200 million in grant money from U.S. DOT to upgrade the Detroit-Chicago Amtrak service. According to O’Toole:
“Why the discrepancy between the claimed 110 mph-and-30 and the real 79 mpg-and-12?
“Page 12 of the grant application tells the tale: After spending the $197 million, the state is applying for another grant that will require hundreds of millions more to increase speeds to 110 mph.
“Together with Michigan’s senators and governor, LaHood’s press conference was an exercise in high-speed deception. ”
According to Michigan’s own calculations, $1 billion more would be needed to get 110 mph trains along this line (which is “high speed” only by America’s low standards).
What’s the alternative? The unsubsidized mass transit option of private intercity bus service. Again, O’Toole points out in the Detroit News article: