By Randal O'Toole
Tea party victories in November likely signal the beginning of the end for President Obama’s ambitious and expensive high-speed rail plans. Republican governors-elect of both Ohio and Wisconsin have vowed to return federal high-speed rail funds that had been granted to those states. The governor-elect of Florida is also a rail skeptic, and more and more obstacles are being thrown in front of California’s rail plans.
The prospects for high-speed rail are so dire that the Onion recently suggested that President Obama would shift his support to high-speed buses instead. Even the Washington Post has sounded caution about spending much more money on this obsolete form of travel.
The California High Speed Rail Authority, which wants to spend a mere $43 billion on the first leg of a proposed 220-mph rail network, has gained a reputation as a paragon of mismanagement and conflicts of interest. The authority’s chair, Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, has accused its staff of incompetence. Reports from the state auditor, the University of California Institute for Transportation Studies, and a committee of transportation professionals have all concluded that the authority’s cost projections are too low and its ridership revenue projections too high.
Nevertheless, in a blatant political move, the Obama administration gave the authority a $900 million grant just a week before the election on the condition that most of the money be spent in the district of a Democratic member of Congress who was fighting a close reelection campaign. The representative, Jim Costa, won reelection by a mere 3,000 votes. The rail authority dutifully decided to start building the rail line in the heart of Costa’s district, from the small town of Corcoran — known mainly as the home of Charles Manson and fellow prisoners — to an even smaller spot named Borden — population zero. This plan was quickly dubbed the train to nowhere and generated opposition not just from Republicans but from Costa’s fellow Democrat, Dennis Cardoza, who represents the congressional district just north of Costa’s.
Although California voters approved $9 billion in bonds for the rail project, the approval was conditional on getting matching funds. So far, the state has received only about $2 billion from the federal government, which means it only has about $4 billion to spend on construction — less than 10 percent of the amount needed to build from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Given the improbability of finding the other 90 percent, and the fact that Republicans in Congress hope to take back some of the money that has already been granted for high-speed rail, the California rail project seems all but dead. The authority’s only hope is to spend enough money building a train to nowhere that politicians will feel compelled to fund the rest.
Meanwhile, Florida was elated when the Obama administration funded half the cost of an 168-mph line running the 80 miles from Tampa to Orlando, with the promise of more funding later. But the state’s enthusiasm was greatly diminished when the administration announced that it expected the states to come up with at least 20 percent matching funds–funds Florida does not have. Even Orlando Congressman John Mica (likely the next chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee) has backed away from supporting the line. So the state’s new governor might be able to kill the project.
The Ohio and Wisconsin projects aren’t even worthy of being called high-speed rail, as Wisconsin’s average speed was projected to be just 59 mph and Ohio’s an even more lethargic 38.5 mph. Yet the Wisconsin project was going to cost nearly $1 billion, nearly all of which the feds agreed to fund, while Ohio’s would be more than half a billion, about $400 million of which was initially funded by the feds. Secretary of Immobility Transportation Ray LaHood vowed that these lines would be built no matter what the incoming governors said, then said that if they cancelled the projects, he would just give the money to other states. While that seems likely, Congress could override such a transfer.
Meanwhile, in a spectacular display of poor timing, Amtrak announced its own Boston-to-Washington high-speed rail plan just a week before the election. Current Amtrak trains reach top speeds of 130-150 mph but average only 80 mph on this route. For a mere $117 billion, Amtrak proposed to build a brand-new line capable of reaching 220-mph top speeds, meaning average speeds of about 130-140 mph. But Amtrak planners must have forgotten to low-ball their cost estimates, for the proposed cost-per-mile of $274 million was nearly three times the projected cost of the California line and more than 10 times the projected cost of Florida high-speed rail. No doubt Amtrak will shelve its plan in anticipation of a more favorable political environment.
New transportation technologies are successful when they are faster, more convenient, and less expensive than the technologies they replace. High-speed rail is slower than flying, less convenient than driving, and at least five times more expensive than either one. It is only feasible with heavy taxpayer subsidies and even then it will only serve a tiny portion of the nation’s population.
A few months before the election, LaHood estimated the administration’s high-speed rail construction plans would eventually cost taxpayers $500 billion, and that’s not counting operating subsidies. BNSF CEO Mark Rose thinks the cost will be closer to $1 trillion. If nothing else, the tea parties may be able to take credit for saving taxpayers at least that amount of money.