A Requiem for "High-Speed Rail"

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In the interest of maintaining some balance and perspective on what the Administration proudly calls "President Obama's bold vision for a national high-speed rail network," at InnovationBriefs we have tried to offer our readers a range of different points of view. It is in this spirit that we present below two commentaries. The first contribution is by Matt Dellinger, author of the highly praised book, "Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway" and a frequent contributor on transportation topics to the progressive website, Transportation Nation. The second contribution is by Ron Utt, Senior Research Fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, whose analyses of transportation policy have been a longstanding feature of that Foundation's work.

Along with our two commentators, we do not question the merits of intercity rail transportation--- an integral and essential part of this nation's economy, culture and history over the past century and a half. Readers of Steven Ambrose's history of the transcontinental railroad, Nothing Like It In the World, can only marvel at the indomitable spirit and entrepreneurial energy that drove the creation of the continental rail network. Rail transportation has been intimately woven into the social and economic fabric of this nation ever since. Nor do we forget the huge contribution that private railroad companies have made, and continue to make, to maintaining and growing the nation's rail network. By investing billions of private dollars, they have made the US freight rail system the envy of the world. Lastly, we believe that intercity passenger rail servic is essential in densely populated heavily traveled corridors, in particular the Northeast Corridor, where road and air traffic congestion will soon be reaching levels that will threaten its continued growth and productivity. In sum, we are not mindless opponents of rail transportation.

Rather, along with Messrs. Dellinger and Utt, and many other responsible observers inside and outside the railroad community (including notably, Michael Ward, Chief Executive Officer of CSX, the nation's third largest freight railroad), we take issue with the Obama Administration's lofty but misleading rhetoric of "high-speed rail." Instead of representing its initiative for what it really is: a program of incremental improvements to the existing rail infrastructure, the Administration has tried to create the impression that it has embarked on a bold and revolutionary program of building a continent-wide high-speed rail network, a legacy reminiscent of President Eisenhower's Interstate Highway Program.

As Dellinger and Utt point out, the recently announced spate of awards funded out of the $2.4 billion rejected by Florida's Gov. Rick Scott will hardly lead to bullet trains speeding from coast-to-coast at 250 mph. These grants, along with most of the earlier awards, will support engineering and planning studies, incremental upgrades in the facilities of freight railroads and modest improvements in existing passenger rail service. For example, the latest list includes a study to replace Amtrak's Baltimore Tunnel; development of Missouri's and West Virginia's state rail plans; final design of the New Jersey Portal Bridge; and modest corridor improvements in Amtrak service in Connecticut, New York and Washington State.

The above-mentioned $300 million worth of awards was announced on April 8, just a few hours before agreement was reached on a short-term continuing resolution that would cut $1.5 billion in unobligated HSR money. It also preceded by three days the release of a GAO report criticizing the lack of transparency in the Administration's HSR grant selection process (GAO-11-283). Citing the GAO findings, Rep. John Mica, Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee blasted the Administration in a strongly worded press release. "In the name of high-speed rail, the Administration has squandered limited resources on dozens of slow-speed rail projects across the country," Mica said. "I cannot imagine a worse beginning to a U.S. high-speed rail effort. ...It is critical that there be transparency for why these projects were selected in the first place and why any future projects will be selected."

Had the objective and the selection criteria of the $10 billion program been stated candidly from the outset as an effort to modestly upgrade existing intercity passenger rail services, the White House would have spared itself this criticism and the attendant ridicule of "ObamaRail" and "the Railroad to Nowhere." As it is, the Administration dug itself into an even deeper hole with a quixotic and hardly credible pledge of "making high-speed rail accessible to 80 percent of Americans in 25 years." A promise that was made without any hint as to how this ambitious plan would be paid for and against a background of the House Republicans' announced intention to totally eliminate federal support for high-speed rail beginning next year. Without further congressional appropriations, the President's dogged pursuit of the $53 billion high-speed rail initiative will simply collapse.

As Matt Dellinger pointedly concluded, "If High-Speed Rail ever happens, future Americans might not remember the President who circulated the maps and funded the studies. They'll remember the President who figured out how to pay for it all."

Matt Dellinger: "How Much High Speed Rail will $2.4 Billion Buy?" Transportation Nation

Ronald Utt: "The Death of a High Speed Rail Program," National Review Online

Ken Orski has worked professionally in the field of transportation for over 30 years.

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we can only hope for death

In the USA, high-speed rail has a few corridors that make sense.
One is Boston to DC.
To get the speeds required for success, you need to "bulldoze" a right-of-way.
When the body politic is ready to do that, then we will have high-speed rail.
When. NIMBY.

Dave Barnes
+1.303.744.9024