Advocates were ecstatic when President Obama had $8 billion for high speed rail put into the stimulus bill. His administration planned to make HSR one of the cornerstones of its infrastructure investment program. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood visited Europe to check out HSR there in person and came back proclaiming, “High speed rail is coming to America.” The $8 billion, we were told, was a down payment, and that in little more than two decades, America's largest cities would be linked by a web of high speed trains.
But as it turns out, a series of snafus and reversals has left Obama's HSR agenda on life support.
First is the public perception of the failure of the stimulus bill. Unemployment never came down to projected levels. Spending largely went to keep state and local government workers already employed, not towards infrastructure or new jobs. Obama has since admitted he was mistaken to believe there were such things as “shovel ready” projects for even roads, much less a complex undertaking like high speed rail. But more importantly, rather than put that $8 billion towards focused projects that would really advance the ball of high speed rail in America, it was peanut butter spread across a large number of projects around the country, ultimately not driving significant improvements. This feeds the perception of $8 billion that just went “poof.”
At the same time, the federal deficit ballooned to $1.5 trillion and the national debt to an astounding $14 trillion. Virtually all parties agree on the need to address our massive structural deficit. The Tea Party focused on a hodge podge of issues, but primarily on reducing government spending. The movement grew to prominence and fueled a Republican comeback in the 2010 elections. In this environment, getting anything done will be difficult, and especially funding items like HSR that are easy to characterize as frivolous and favoring just a few urban regions.
The biggest impact may have been at the state level, however, as a wave of new Republican governors ripped up HSR plans and sent stimulus funds back to Washington. This includes Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio, and Rick Scott in Florida, all of whom said “thanks, but no thanks” to federal rail funds.
But beyond those philosophically opposed to HSR, some high speed rail advocates have done themselves no favors either. They've resolutely backed pretty much any and every rail project regardless of whether it is potentially useful or an outright boondoggle. They've engaged in false advertising by labeling 110 MPH peak speeds as “high speed rail” instead of what it really is:Amtrak on steroids. (One of the more serious HSR advocates is Richard Longworth, who labeled the Midwest 110 MPH rail plan the “Toonerville trolley”). Nevertheless, Illinois is pocketing well over $1 billion of the HSR stimulus funds for this “high speed” system that will offer end to end journey times that are at best only slightly better than what's already being provided today by Megabus – and that for only a handful of trains a day on a line still subject to freight interference.
Advocates have excoriated opponents to high speed rail, but have shown themselves largely utterly unserious about the enterprise as they have put no focus on overcoming major institutional barriers such as the steam road era thinking of the Federal Railroad Administration which is stuck in the 90s – the 1890s – or the mismanagement at Amtrak. Getting to an HSR system that works is going to involve major reform (or replacement) of those agencies since all proven, international HSR systems are illegal in the US under current rules. Witness here also the histrionics about a Republican proposal to privatize the Northeast Corridor rail operations rather than engage with it as a starting point. Even in Europe and Japan, many HSR operations are private, so there’s no reason they can’t be in the US too.
To be clear, though I myself have been ambivalent about the high speed rail enterprise, I do not consider myself anti-rail in the slightest. I agree that HSR could bring potentially significant benefits, particularly in the Northeast, although it’s a somewhat more speculative enterprise in most parts of the country. This is one on which reasonable people can disagree. But however one feels, getting to the benefits will require a properly designed and operated true high speed system, something few of the current proposals would provide.
It's time to take a major gut check on high speed rail in America and rethink the direction. Clearly, with the budgetary and political situation, significant future HSR investments are unlikely. Even if some billions materialize, the experience of the stimulus suggests that they will be frittered away as salami slices sent hither and fro.
A better approach might be to take some time to think more clearly about what we want high speed rail to look like in America. It starts with learning from best – and worst – practices abroad, while noting the important differences versus the US. We need to put a proper regulatory regime in place and reform the FRA; to set up a framework for a successful privatization of any system, probably with operations contracted to an international operator with high speed experience; and to jettison any thought of Amtrak as the ultimate HSR system operator.
We can then prove these concepts out in the one corridor where high speed rail is clearly a slam dunk in America: the Northeast Corridor from DC to Boston. Despite what the Acela brand might imply, this is far from high speed service today, and there's clearly room for vast improvements. Studies can proceed in parallel in other regions, and one we've proven in the NEC that HSR can be for real in America, other regions might opt in.
In short, it’s time to stop pretending we are going to get a massive nationwide HSR rail network any time soon. Advocates should instead focus on building a serious system in a demonstration corridor that can built credibility for American high speed rail, then built incrementally from there. That's about the best hope for HSR left in America. Without a rethink of the current approach, high speed rail is well and truly dead.
Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs based in the Midwest. His writings appear at The Urbanophile.