The most bizarre part of President Obama’s pre-election gasp to attract votes for November is the idea of high speed rail systems. It was one of the items in his new $50 billion spending proposal, as reported Sept. 7 by The Reason Foundation and others. Obama pulled from his political hat, at a Labor Day rally in Milwaukee, a desperate initiative to fix 150,000 miles of roads, lay or rebuild 4,000 miles of railroad tracks and redo 150 miles of airport runways. “Putting high-speed rail on a par with highways for federal transportation funds is an incredibly bad idea—a system they hope people will be willing to change their lifestyles in order to use,” said the Reason Foundation article. It’s “one of the most expensive forms of transportation that a nation could choose,” Heritage Foundation Scholar Ronald Utt wrote in a backgrounder earlier this year.
In January, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) of the Department of Transportation awarded $8 billion of the stimulus package for high-speed rail (HSR). This was to meet Obama’ plan to fling the money at 13 high-speed rail projects nationwide, the Christian Science Monitor reported. An additional $5 billion was promised over the next five years. Besides the billions in capital costs federal and state governments will incur, “domestic and international experience indicates” the President is committing the nation “to providing a perpetual stream of substantial subsidies to offset the difference between fare revenues and operating costs of HSR and passenger rail in general,” Utt wrote. As a result, HSR could rival some other entitlement programs in what will add to out-of-control deficits. In the U.S., even the traditional passenger railroad (Amtrak), which Joe Biden road back and forth to Washington as a Senator, is the most heavily subsidized passenger travel mode in the country. It needs a subsidy of $238 per 1,000 passenger miles. That compares with $4.23 for commercial airline travel and $1.50 for intercity buses. An HSR line would cost much more to build and operate, points out Ronald Utt, to provide “a secure roadbed constructed to precise standards and tolerances….”
Besides the high costs of an HSR program dumped on taxpayers in a time of economic hardship and creeping recovery, one wonders what could have guided the FRA decision-making process “to produce this multi-year, multi-billion dollar commitment to obsolete technology,” Utt wrote. Obama’s commitment to HSR “raises serious questions about his judgment and the judgment of his economic advisers.” What motivated the FRA review team to endorse the proposed $1.1 billion investment in the Kansas City-St. Louis-Chicago route, which would allow customers to reach their destinations 10 percent faster than they could by driving between Chicago and St. Louis,” Utt wondered. Or the $1.25 billion federal investment in a $3.2 billion project for a high-speed rail line between Orlando and Tampa, which could cut travel time between the two cities by less than an hour, compared to about 90 minutes by auto. Does anyone smell politics related to these important voter locales?
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?
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