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A Requiem for “High-Speed Rail”

Posted by Ken Orski on Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

Innovation NewsBriefs
Vol. 22, No. 12

An Editorial Point of View

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” 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 service is essential in densely populated heavily traveled corridors, in particular in 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 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.<>Late news: the final congressional continuing resolution announced on April 12 eliminates all funding for high-speed rail in FY 2011 and rescinds $400 million from the FY 2010 funding for a total reduction of $2.9 billion from fiscal year 2010 levels. http://appropriations.house.gov )

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.”

Kenneth Orski
Editor-Publisher

How Much High Speed Rail Will $2.4 Billion Buy?
by Matt Dellinger (reprinted from Transportation Nation, April 7, 2011)
http://transportationnation.org

It should be more fun to give away billions of dollars for rail. One of the happiest things a politician gets to do, after all, is fork over cash for transportation projects. All those gold shovels, ribbon cuttings, and bridge-naming ceremonies! And, one could argue, President Barack Obama and SecretaryRay LaHood should feel triply blessed. With today’s politics being what they are, they get to dole out money more than once!

But there’s something of a deflated mood around the bids that came in this week for the $2.4 billion in High Speed Rail funds that Florida rejected in February. The money seems a little tainted, perhaps, and politically heavy. It’s unseemly to celebrate over such federal largess when Washington is on the verge of a shutdown and budget negotiators are contemplating cutting vital programs. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Florida Governor Rick Scott, elected as budget hawks, decided the safe bet was to show restraint and send back big fat slices of the transportation pie. By doing so, they left more for everyone else—but they also made the indulgence more fraught. These are hungry times, though, and money won’t sit around long. By Monday, twenty four states, plus Washington D.C. and Amtrak, had bid for pieces of Florida’s pie.

What the Administration and rail boosters lost in the Florida debacle—a truly high-speed segment with right-of-way secured and private investors in line, that could have been built in the visible future (the next Presidential term, for instance)—will not be gained back by anything proposed Monday. Among the list of projects there is no item that will similarly turn a rail-less corridor into a futuristic proof-of-concept. The speeds mentioned are all easily imaginable by anyone with a decent car. Without a confidence in messaging that has so far eluded the Administration when it comes to transportation, it will be hard to sell this reapportionment as anything earth-shattering, or even (literally) ground-breaking.

So what can this money do? If you read about the bids (such as Michigan’s, Pennsylvania’s, and Illinois’), you know that most of the bidders have in mind a set of very worthy incremental upgrades—a renovated bridge here, a bypass there, upgraded switches here—and studies to advance future megaprojects such as the Gateway Tunnel under the Hudson. Skeptics will point out, as the venerable publisher of Innovation Briefs, Ken Orski, has done, that this kind of birdshot smattering of small projects is hardly lunar-landing stuff.

But this serves as criticism only because the Administration’s rhetoric has routinely exceeded the nation’s grasp. It’s not the time for rail, they argue, it’s the time frral. On the other hand, the administration argues, if you don’t dream, dreams will never be real. Everyone understands that President Eisenhower built the Interstates. But the system was drawn up in 1944, twelve whole years before the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. It was FDR who made the plans for a system of “Interregional Highways” and who, during the Depression, first wrestled with the question of how to build them. Eisenhower blew the dust off those plans and signed a bill that created a mechanism for funding them. 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 is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway (http://www.mattdellinger.com)

The Death of a High-Speed-Rail Program
How a handful of think tanks and the Florida Tea Party changed the debate

by Ron Utt, (reprinted from National Review Online, April 11, 2011)
http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/264268/deat-high-speed-rail-program-ronald-d-utt

On March 4, 2011, the Florida supreme court unanimously confirmed Gov. Rick Scott’s authority to reject $2.4 billion in federal funding to build an 84 mile high-speed-rail (HSR) line connecting Tampa to the Orlando Airport and Disney World. Governor Scott had rejected the funds in late February, but the combined power and vast financial resources of the federal government, multinational high-speed-rail builders, some local governments, and the Florida business community worked to find a legal loophole with which to circumvent Scott’s repeated rejections.

As a result of the court decision, the project has joined the Ohio and Wisconsin pseudo-HSR proposals, which were rejected by governors John Kasich and Scott Walker, respectively. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has announced that he will redeploy the rejected $2.4 billion to other, more willing states, and on April 6, 2011, he announced that the Department of Transportation would be selecting among the 90 new applicants seeking the funds. None of these projects are for genuine HSR, and instead focus on improving existing slow-speed Amtrak service.

While much of this has been in the national news, what most journalists and commentators have overlooked is the decisive role a handful of pro-market think tanks and Tea Party activists played in putting these projects in the morgue. Beginning in early 2009, when Congress agreed to fund Obama’s new HSR plan with $8 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, analysts at Cato, Reason, and Heritage, working both individually and collectively (through the American Dream Coalition), began to produce work that was critical of the proposals. Cato and Heritage (note: I work at the latter) published several overview papers on the subject, Heritage hosted a total of four seminars, and the Reason Foundation arranged for detailed studies of the California and Florida proposals. Ken Orski, publisher of Innovation Briefs, hammered away with weekly skeptical article that were widely circulated through the transportation-policy community and media.

As the issue heated up and the projected costs soared, think tanks’ work in this area led to scores of interviews with journalists who were becoming increasingly skeptical of the Administration’s claims. By early 2011, even the Washington Post and the New York Times expressed doubts about the plan.The first victory came in Hillsborough County, Fla. (near Tampa), where the local Tea Party had established an organization called “No Tax for Tracks.” The name referred to a proposal to hike local sales taxes to pay for a light-rail line that would connect the area to the proposed Tampa/Orlando HSR line.

In September of 2010, the group held a rally to encourage people to vote “no” in a referendum on the proposal, and several members of the American Dream Coalition spoke at the event. Despite being outspent $1,600,000 to $25,000 by the business community and opposed by the political establishment, the Tea Party won, and funding for the light-rail line was defeated.

Having won against overwhelming odds, the Tampa Tea Party activists turned their attention to Florida’s proposed HSR boondoggle. During the 2010 campaign, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott expressed skepticism about the HSR plan and promised a thorough review of it if elected. Scott was elected and did conduct the review, which was influenced by — and several times quoted — the Reason Foundations’s analysis. At the same time, the Hillsborough County Tea Party team, joined by allies throughout the state and supported by the think tanks, went to work opposing the project. In the process, they met with media, elected officials, and the new governor. By late February, they had convinced enough of those in need of convincing, and the project seemed dead.

But not quite. President Obama’s refusal to let go of this scheme, and his ability to expend vast sums of taxpayer dollars to keep it alive, allowed it to flounder along for a week or two after the court’s ruling as his aides tried to circumvent the decision. In the end, the Florida project died, and with the California HSR project unlikely to be built because of high costs and tight budgets, all that is left of the Obama rail plan is an effort to increase spending on Amtrak.

The success of this effort illustrates how a small number of dedicated people with limited money but lots of energy and commitment can take on powerful forces and bring them to heel. As the Miami Herald noted, Governor Scott “said he made the decision based on a verbal review of the ridership study, as well as documents provided by the libertarian Reason Foundation and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.” Importantly, the majority in Congress agrees: The House Budget Resolution for FY2012 states that “the threat of large, endless subsidies is precisely the reason governors across the country are rejecting federally-funded high-speed rail projects. This budget eliminates these projects which have failed numerous and clear cost-benefit analyses.”

Ronald D. Utt is the Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow in the Heritage Foundation?s Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.

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 22nd year of publication.

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