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A rail reality check that President Obama should heed

Posted by Ken Orski on Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Innovation NewsBriefs
Vol. 21, No. 28

PRESIDENT OBAMA wants Americans to zip around in high-speed trains, just as many  Japanese, French, and Chinese already do. For him, the goal seems almost as much about  national pride as job creation or energy savings. “There’s no reason that Europe or China should have the fastest trains,” he has said. Congress included $8 billion in the 2009 stimulus bill for passenger rail projects, and Mr. Obama spread the money among 13 corridors around the country. But there is a problem: to the extent that the Nov. 2 election was a referendum on those plans, voters rejected them.

In two states where Mr. Obama committed money – Ohio and Wisconsin – Republican governors-elect won office on explicitly anti-rail platforms. And in Florida, Rick Scott, the Republican who won the race for governor, expressed doubts about rail. To one degree or another, all three men worried that their states would be left with unsustainable operating costs once the initial federal stimulus money disappeared.

They have a point. Passenger rail’s competitiveness with air and automobile traffic is far from established – as Amtrak’s perennial federal operating subsidies show. Even high-speed bullet trains don’t offset enough plane or car traffic to reduce America’s carbon footprint by much. The president may admire China’s burgeoning high-speed system, but that system is  deeply in the red. On major routes, the trains often whiz along half-empty, since the tickets are far too expensive for ordinary Chinese. China recently announced a review of its program in light of a Chinese Academy of Sciences study warning that its debts may be unsustainable.

Governors-elect Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio thought the total of $1.2 billion in rail money slated for their states could be better spent on roads and bridges. The Obama administration says no: On Monday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that they could either use the money for trains or lose it. This blunt refusal to heed the fresh mandate of Ohio and Wisconsin’s voters seems hard to justify – especially since using the money for other infrastructure would have created jobs, just as building trains would have.

In any case, the Democratic governor-to-be of New York, Andrew Cuomo, has asked Mr. LaHood to send him the money Wisconsin and Ohio don’t want. If that happens, this story may have a happy ending – of sorts. Passenger rail makes the most sense in the densely populated Northeast Corridor, of which New York is a major part. Mr. Obama should have concentrated rail money there in the first place, rather than trying to spread it to areas of the country that may not need it and, we now know, do not want it.

C. Kenneth Orski is a public policy consultant and former principal of the Urban Mobility Corporation. He has worked professionally in the field of transportation for over 30 years, in both the public and private sector. He is editor and publisher of Innovation NewsBriefs, now in its 21st year of publication.

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