By Philip Klein from the March 2011 issue
"Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail," President Obama declared in his State of the Union address, making it the most ambitious element of his vision for "winning the future."
Invoking national pride, Obama mused that "America is the nation that built the transcontinental railroad, brought electricity to rural communities, constructed the interstate highway system." Sadly, he lamented, the U.S. now lags behind Europe, Russia, and China in modern transportation infrastructure.
If the nation met his goal for high-speed rail adoption, he said, "This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying -- without the pat-down. As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already under way."
To most Americans, the passing reference to California was likely an afterthought, lost amid all the dreamy rhetoric of rebuilding the nation. But upon closer inspection, the state's proposed high-speed rail system serves as a perfect example of the gap between the promise of transformational liberalism and the reality of big government. Taxpayers everywhere should pay attention, because the project has already been granted $3.2 billion in federal funds, mostly through Obama's economic stimulus package -- and its backers hope to gobble up billions more over the next decade.
The $43 billion transportation project to link Los Angeles to San Francisco with a bullet train by 2020 would be considered grandiose during the plushest of times, yet it's being pursued during an era when governments at all levels are mired in deep fiscal crises. The plan has been subject to a series of scathing reports by independent analysts, raising concerns about everything from its cost estimates to its business model. The University of California at Berkeley has questioned its lofty ridership projections. And even the Washington Post has editorialized against it.
Although voters in the financially strapped Golden State approved a ballot measure in 2008 authorizing up to $9.9 billion in bonds to build the rail system, the project has encountered a lot of opposition as it has progressed. Several cities are suing to prevent the trains from tearing through their downtowns. Farmers are worried that the tracks will carve up their land. Some environmental groups normally predisposed to supporting high-speed rail have turned against the proposed route, fearing its effects on undeveloped areas. When the High-Speed Rail Authority announced that the initial section of the line would be built in the state's less inhabited Central Valley region, many were puzzled as to why they didn't begin by connecting large cities with more potential riders. As a result, critics dubbed it the "train to nowhere."
"The cost projections are overly optimistic," Wendell Cox, a public policy consultant and co-author of a critical report for the libertarian Reason Foundation, says. "The ridership projections are absolutely crazy. The thing will have no impact on highway traffic and will have little or no impact on the amount of planes in the air. This project really defines the term ‘boondoggle.'"
The project will rise or fall based on federal commitments, a reality that spurred California state senator Doug LaMalfa to visit Washington in early January to make a rather unusual request for a state legislator.
"I know they're not used to this, but I asked them to stop sending us money," LaMalfa, a Republican, said. "Please stop sending us money....When they send us money, it actually costs us money."
So, at a time of unprecedented debt, why are the state government and the Obama administration still committed to the high-speed rail project? Why are planners starting the construction in a tiny, almost-unknown town outside of Fresno rather than in a major population center? And is there any chance of putting the brakes on the project?
BRINGING HIGH-SPEED RAIL to America has been a decades-long dream for liberals, who have long envied Europe's extensive rail system. Building a high-speed rail network, they hope, would move the nation away from automobiles and reduce pollution. It has the added bonus of being a massive, centrally planned public works project. The problem is just because rail has worked elsewhere, that doesn't mean it makes sense here.
"We're not like Spain or France, where the population densities are a lot higher, and the cities are not as spread out," Ken Orski, a former transportation official in the Nixon and Ford administrations and publisher of the newsletter Innovation Briefs, says. "So you can connect cities like Barcelona and Madrid or Paris and Marseilles easily."
In addition, large European cities have "distribution systems," meaning that when passengers arrive at a station, they can get where they need to go by public transportation or walking, without a car. By contrast, in a city like say, Fresno, a person would be stranded without one.
"So people who are saying ‘Look at Europe, why can't we be like Europe?' I don't think they really realize the difference between our geographic and demographic conditions and theirs," Orski says.
The only place where high-speed rail could theoretically make sense would be the Northeast corridor from Washington to Boston, which would pass through Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. The problem is, Orski explains, it's likely "50 years too late," because the area along that route is already densely populated and developed, making it cost prohibitive to acquire right of way.