Skepticism About High-Speed Rail Is Growing

"Spend first, answer questions later." So concludes a critical editorial in the January 12 edition of the Washington Post, commenting on California's proposed $43 billion High-Speed Rail program. The Post editorial, along with a January 11 article in the New York Times (both of which we reprint below), are emblematic of the increasingly skeptical press and public opinion concerning the fiscal and economic soudness of the Obama Administration's high-speed rail initiative. "It's unclear that the public benefits attributed to high-speed rail...would outweigh the inevitable operating subsidies," observes the Washington Post, confirming the conclusions already reached by the states of Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa.

Other states and their freight railroad partners seemingly are having similar second thoughts, judging from the parties' lack of progress in reaching cooperative track-sharing agreements. Conspicuous among them is the state of Florida which has been promised a $2.4 billion federal grant to build an 84-mile "high-speed" line from Tampa to Orlando. That line, by all evidence, is too short to produce any meaningful time savings over car trips along a parallel interstate freeway. Moreover, as the New York Times article points out, the proposed line has scored among the lowest in terms of projected ridership in a study of the nation's high-speed rail corridors recently published by America 2050, a national urban planning initiative ( Its authors cited the low population and employment density of the cities at either end of the line (and a lack of internal transit distribution systems, we might add) as the reason for low ridership estimates and the line's low score. The article notes that "the report represents another blow to the Florida high-speed rail network after a report from the Reason Foundation found the project could cost Florida taxpayers $3 billion."

As the Washington Post editorial observed, "The president has a vision of a national high-speed rail network almost as grand as the interstate highway system. We have our doubts about the ultimate feasibility of this vision, in part because in much of the country passenger rail can't compete with car travel by interstate highways." The editorial could also have noted one other fundamental difference. Pres. Eisenhower's ambitious plan for the interstate highway system was placed on a sound fiscal basis by being backed by a user fee (aka the gas tax). Mr. Obama's high-speed rail vision, on the other hand is funded by a one-time $8 billion federal stimulus grant with no visible source of continued support. Indeed, the high-speed rail initiative faces little prospect of sustained congressional funding, it has yet to show evidence of attracting private capital, and it exposes the taxpayers to continued operating subsidies,as Amtrak experience suggests.

No wonder Pres. Obama's vision is increasingly being questioned, even by the mainstream media.