"Patchwork" High Speed Rail System Unraveling?

The widely dispersed opposition to proposals for high speed rail (genuine and faux) led Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to say that the Administration would press forward in a patchwork fashion if necessary.

"Patchwork" may be an overstatement. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R., Ky.) has plans to eliminate high speed rail funding in the current fiscal year. Already, holes have appeared in the high-speed rail plans with the cancellation of the Milwaukee to Madison line by Gov. Scott Walker and the cancellation of the Cincinnati to Cleveland line by Gov. John Kasich.

Should the Republican congressional high speed rail defunding proposal survive, it will could put an end to such proposals as the Miami to Orlando high-speed rail line, which has been advertised as an $8 billion project but which international experience suggests could easily reach $16 billion.

Further, the proposed defunding could render California's presently planned San Joaquin Valley "train to nowhere" (Corcoran to Borden, with stops in Hanford and Fresno) as less than patchwork. The California line was already on life support, with the newest estimates indicating a 50 percent cost increase over two years (to $65 billion), bringing overall per mile cost escalation since the initial 1999 estimate to approximately 100 percent (adjusted for inflation). As these difficulties were not enough, the Community Coalition on High Speed Rail reports that agricultural interests are now raising concerns about the impact of construct in the San Joaquin Valley. Strong citizen opposition has already developed on the San Francisco peninsula and in the Los Angeles area, which may have been part of the reason that the California High Speed Rail Authority chose the "train to nowhere" route as its first segment.

This could also make it unlikely that there will be any new funding for the Chicago to St. Louis high-speed rail line, which requires at least another $2 billion to complete the trip in four hours (at an average speed of 75 miles per hour). In fact, four hour service was promised in the US Department of Transportation documentation that accompanied the previous $1 billion grant.

It will probably also be the end of the $12 billion (more likely $25 billion) proposal to scrap the 75 mile per hour Chicago to St. Louis system after it is completed and replace it with a completely new, faster line that would travel twice as fast.

A number of commentators (including this author) have suggested that zeroing out high-speed rail is a litmus test of the resolve of Congress to control spending. The first steps may have been taken.