Obama’s High-Speed Rail Obsession


Perhaps nothing so illustrates President Obama’s occasional disconnect with reality than his fervent advocacy of high-speed rail. Amid mounting pressure for budget cuts that affect existing programs, including those for the inner city, the president has made his $53 billion proposal to create a national high-speed rail network as among his top priorities.

Our President may be an intelligent and usually level-headed man, but this represents a serious case of  policy delusion. As Robert Samuelson pointed out in Newsweek, high-speed rail is not an appropriate fit for a country like the U.S. Except for a few areas, notably along the Northeast Corridor, the U.S. just lacks the density that would make such a system work. Samuelson calls the whole idea “a triumph of fancy over fact.”

Arguably the biggest problem with high-speed rail is its extraordinary costs, which would require massive subsidies to keep operating. Unlike the Federal Highway Program, largely financed by the gas tax, high-speed rail lacks any credible source of funding besides taxpayer dollars.

Part of the pitch for high-speed rail is nationalistic. To be a 21st century super power, we must emulate current No. 2 China. But this is a poor reason to indulge in a hugely expensive program when the U.S. already has the world’s most evolved highway, freight rail and airline system.

Also, if the U.S. were to follow the Chinese model, as some have suggested, perhaps it should impose rule from a Washington version of a centralized authoritarian government. After all, dictatorships are often quite adept at “getting things done.”  But in a democracy “getting things done” means balancing interests and efficiencies, not following orders from above.

In China high-speed rail is so costly that the trains are too expensive for the average citizen. Furthermore, construction costs are so high the Chinese Academy of Sciences has already warned that its debts may not be payable. This experience with ballooning costs and far lower fare revenues have raised taxpayer obligations in Taiwan and Korea and added to heavily to the national debt in Japan.

The prospect of mounting and uncontrollable costs has led governors to abandon high-speed projects  in Ohio, Wisconsin and most recently Florida, where a battle to save the Tampa-Orlando line has begun . In times of budget stress, the idea of building something new, and historically difficult to contain by costs, becomes a hard sell.

Oddly, the leaders of California, faced with one of the worst fiscal positions in the country, are determined to spend several billions on what Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters has dubbed a “train to nowhere” for 54 miles between Madera and Corcoran — two unremarkable and remote Central Valley towns. The proposal makes the former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens’ notorious ”bridges to nowhere” project seem like frugal public policy.

California’s train to nowhere has been justified as part of wider project to construct a statewide system. But the whole idea makes little financial sense: The University of California’s Institute for Transportation describes the high-speed proposal as based on an “inconsistent model” whose ridership projections are simply not “reliable.”

Equally suspect are cost estimates, which have doubled (after adjustment for inflation) from 1999 to $42.6 billion last year and. A new study says that the project could currently cost close to $65 billion. Costs for a ticket from Los Angeles to San Francisco, originally pegged at $55 one way, had nearly doubled by 2009, and now some estimates place it at about to at least a $100 or perhaps much as $190 — considerably more than an advanced-purchase ticket on far faster Southwest Airlines.

There’s growing political opposition to the system as well, and not just among penny-pinching right-wingers. Residents and local officials in the San Francisco Peninsula, a wealthy and reliably liberal portion of Silicon Valley, largely oppose plans to route the line through their communities. This includes some prominent liberal legislators, such as San Mateo’s Assembly Jerry Hill, who has threatened to put high-speed rail back on the ballot if costs start to surpass initial estimates. Another Democrat, California Treasurer Bill Lockyer has doubts that the rail authority will be able to sell the deal to potential bond-buyers   due in part to a lack of consistent estimates in ridership or cost.

So why is Obama still so determined to push the high-speed boondoggle? Largely it’s a deadly combination of theology and money. Powerful rail construction interests, notably the German giant Siemens, are spreading cash like mustard on a bratwurst to promote the scheme. Add to that construction unions and the ever voracious investment banks who would love to pocket fees for arranging to sell the bonds and you have interests capable of influencing either party.

Then there’s what might be called the “density lobby” — big city mayors, construction firms  and the urban land owners. These magnates, who frequently extort huge public subsidies for their projects, no doubt think it grand to spend billions of public funds on something that might also increase the value of their real estate.

And finally there are the true believers, notably planners, academics, green activists and an army of rail fans. These are people who believe America should be more like Europe — denser, more concentrated in big cities and tied to the rails. “High speed rail is not really about efficient transport,” notes California transit expert and accountant Tom Rubin. “It’s all about shaping cities for a certain agenda.”

Yet despite their power, these forces face mounting obstacles. As transportation expert Ken Orski points out, the balance of power in the House now lies with suburban and rural legislators, whose constituents would not benefit much from high-speed rail. And then there are governors, increasingly Republican and conservative, very anxious not to add potentially huge obligations to their already stressed budgets.

The most decisive opposition, however, could come from those who favor transit spending but understand to the need to prioritize.  High-speed rail is far more expensive than such things as fixing current commuter rail and subways or expanding both public and private bus service. Indeed, the money that goes to urban rail often ends up being diverted from other, more cost-effective systems, notably buses.

The choice between high-speed rail and more conventional, less expensive transit has already been presaged in the fight against expanding LA’s expensive rail system by organizations representing bus riders. These activists contend that rail swallows funds that could be spent on buses

Much the same case is being made the San Francisco peninsula. The opponents of high-speed rail on the San Francisco Peninsula are outraged that the state would spend billions on a chancy potential boondoggle when the popular Caltrain commuter rail service is slated to be curtailed or even eliminated.

One can of course expect that anti-spending conservatives will be the biggest cheerleaders for high-speed rail’s decline. But transit advocates may be forced to join the chorus of opposition, in order to steer   transit spending towards more basic priorities as buses in Los Angeles, subways in New York or commuter rail in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In an era of tough budgets, and proposed cutbacks on basic services, setting sensible transportation priorities is crucial. Spending billions on a conveyance that will benefit a relative handful of people and places is not just illogical. It’s obscene.

This piece originally appeared in Forbes.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and an adjunct fellow of the Legatum Institute in London. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.

Photo: Center for Neighborhood Technology

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A possible planning session

A possible planning session within Team Obama:

Jack:  The stimulus should have had more effect.
Bob:  I don't understand it myself. All of that spending produced so few jobs.

Jack:  Shhh! Never say it that way. Say "Our investment in the economy prevented a total collapse and preserved over 2 million jobs".
Bob:  We would need much more than 2 million jobs to have a full recovery.

Jack:  So far so good.
Bob:  We have to spend more.

Jack:  They're laughing at us. Obama promised shovel ready jobs, then he admitted that there weren't any. Almost all of the stimulus went to reduce state and household borrowing. If we spend more now, we must be able to point to the projects. Good, union work projects.
Bob:  How about building railroads, the miracle of the 19th century? Everyone likes railroads.

Jack:  We have plenty of railroads, and lots of capacity in our recession.
Bob:  High speed passenger rail, like the Simpson's Monorail. We can point to the trains, and they will go everywhere.

Jack:  Passenger rail loses money.
Bob:  The point is to spend enough to end this recession. It doesn't matter where it is spent, as long as we spend enough. And we will borrow enough to support the spending. Borrowing is free, because we won't have to pay it back during our administration. The Republicans will have to pay it back, if we're lucky. Or unlucky. Or something.

Jack:  That is actually good. You have exceeded yourself. Spend and spend, with real, steel tracks and big engines to point to. Shovel ready and unionized. This will save us all.
Bob:  (1) Spend lots of money.  (2) ???  (3) We will all be rich.

Jack:  Just like the Underpants Gnomes (skip to 17:40. Sorry about the 30 second commercial.).


yes, it is very logical

The Left's fetish with high-speed rail is entirely logical when one realizes that HSR is not about transportation. It's about government.

To Obama and Co., there are distinct advantages to HSR. One is that it permanently enlarges the size, scope and expense of government, always a desirable and good end in itself to the Left.

Also, there few things that give the Left more salivating joy than the prospect of the masses moving together as one under government control, according to government schedules, to and from government-selected terminals, at government-set speeds, with their on-board activities strictly controlled (no smoking, etc.). While aboard the train, the rider-masses are more completely, physically under the government thumb than they'll ever be the rest of the day. And that is a true dream of the Left.

And as a previous commenter pointed out, it gives them the opportunity to spread around billions of taxpayer dollars to favored constituencies while claiming to be working for the public good.

I wrote more about this in, "The High Speed Rail Fetish."

Donald Sensing

If Obama wants to see rail

If Obama wants to see rail transit grow in America, he might start with the low hanging fruit first. Positive Train Control allows Amtrak to increase the speed of their train in more than 80% of their trackage from 79 mph up to 110-115 mph, but it won't happen until 2015 because it is too expensive for Amtrak to fund. If the US paid for this upgrade which would cost $51 Billion less than Obamas high speed rail plan, Amtrak trains outside of metropolitan areas could run much faster, much sooner, allowing train travel to become noticeably more convenient, allowing for even more growth in ridership numbers, which would allow for more trains to run...
Add in double tracking in the areas where Amtrak trains are most frequently held up by oncoming trains and Amtraks ontime ratio would continue to improve as it has since the 2008 law was enacted that called for PTC by 2015.
Voters know what works, and up until recently, trains didn't work for most of America. Amtrak is getting more passengers and delivering more of them on time, but Florida type fast rail gambles could hurt more than they help trains in the long run. Get regional trains up to 115 mph, which they are already capable of, and more voters will back Amtrak because they have seen it work for them or for their friends.


Construction jobs. UNION

Construction jobs. UNION construction jobs, that will last for many years.

It doesn't matter whether it's a good idea or not.


I think it unlikely that Obama is deluded on this issue. If he sticks with his high-speed plans, it is more likely that he has (and others have) ulterior motives.

Some folks used to file tax

Some folks used to file tax returns with one or two obviously bad deductions, so when they were audited the IRS agent could latch onto those and be able to show his supervisor he'd earned his pay. Maybe I'm just too cynical, but this sure looks like the same thing: a proposal designed to be traded away in budget negotiations, leaving other Administration proposals safe from the predations of the Republican budget hawks.

Déjà vu

We seem to be in stuck in a cycle of "Déjà vu" as these never going to happen liberal nonsense projects make yet another turn.

We did these solar panels, high speed rail, electric cars and other green stuff in the late 1970's. They didn't make sense then and they don't make sense now too.

Can't we move on to more important stuff?

Like how we are going to pay for all this debt?