Central Florida a dozen year ago first had what supporters thought was an exciting idea for a light rail system. It was based, however, on flawed public policy. Opponents asked, why should taxpayers of other parts of Florida and the other 49 states be compelled to pay for such a train. A study by the Florida Public Policy Institute compiled the judgments of the country’s most experienced experts in light, or high speed, rail. Their conclusions can be summarized as follows: “Light rail is not more energy efficient than the automobile, U.S. Department of Energy data indicate that light rail consumes more energy per passenger than the average automobile. It is not safer than automobiles. In fact, light rail’s fatality rate per 100 million passenger miles is double that of the bus and double that of the automobile in urban applications. It is not faster. The average single automobile commute rate in the United States is twice as fast as the average light rail commute. If the Tampa-to-Orlando system has the same cost overruns and passenger shortfalls as that which the U.S. Department of Transportation found in studies of eight projects, there would be construction cost overruns of 150 percent, operating cost overruns of 180 percent, ridership shortfalls of more than 50 percent, far less reduction in air pollution than promised, and the cost to taxpayers over 20 years would be at lest $6.7 billion.”
Other countries’ experiences with HSR and passenger rail warns how damaging the Administration’s enthusiastic commitment to HSR is likely to be. Looking at the European experience, “rail ridership in those countries accounted for just 7.9 percent of all surface transportation modes on a per passenger, per billion kilometer basis,” wrote Utt in his study, “This suggests that these countries received a poor return on their money given that more than 90 percent of the passengers in these counties chose other travel modes—mostly auto—despite subsidies.” HSR would attempt to shift travel from largely unsubsidized commercial aviation to massively subsidized trains. As bad as the Europeans’ experience has been, some counties have seen even worse outcomes. Japan’s rail system has been extremely costly, Utt reports. As a result of its commitment to trains that can travel 180 miles per hour, the Japanese National Railway was losing 20 billion a year. By the mid-1980s, the railway’s accumulated debt exceeded $300 billion. The Japanese government then began to privatize the system. Unlike Amtrak’s near-empty Amtrak trains, Japan’s trains carried about 29 percent of travelers in 2007. That’s the highest rate of rail use in the world. Now, privatized Japanese rail lines run at a profit, but only because they were bought at a fraction of their capital costs and the government soaked up much of the debt, Utt explains.
As Utt’s analysis reveals: With a HSR program in America, we can look forward to perpetual and huge government subsidies larger budget deficits, and wasted money because few travelers will use HSR, even with generous fare subsidies. Service would be furnished to only a fraction of the traveling public in a handful of cities. Added burdens will be placed on overloaded state governments, which would have to match the constant run of federal subsidies. There would be little or no difference in environmental quality. But high-paying and low-productivity jobs would be handed out to union and other political supporters.
As Congress glances back over its shoulder at its string of blunders in the past year or so, will it continue the fiscal insanity or will members rush with the speed of a HSR train to escape any connection with their star-gazing President?