Vol. 22, No. 7
The trickle of criticism about the Administration’s high-speed rail (HSR) program several months ago has turned into a veritable torrent in recent days. Serious media opinion seems to have turned against HSR and this has enormously complicated the Administration’s efforts to turn congressional and public opinion around.
The first round of criticism was launched late last year by an article written by the respected Washington Post columnist, Robert Samuelson, titled “California Rail Project is High-Speed Pork” (November 1, 2010). Samuelson’s column was followed by two critical editorials in the Washington Post, the first in the November 16 edition and the second in the January 12 edition. All three commentaries expressed skepticism about the feasibility of the President’s vision, in part because of the inability of passenger rail to compete with car travel in much of the country.
The second round of criticism dates to early February. It began with another critical column by Robert Samuelson (“High-Speed Rail is a Fast Track to Government Waste,” February 14), followed closely by three editorials, two of them in the Wall Street Journal (February 14 and 18) and one in the Washington Post (February 16) All three editorials pursued a common theme: skepticism about the cost-effectiveness of high-speed rail, a high risk of operating subsidies, the lack of any credible source of sustained funding, and inflated ridership projections to justify investment in high-speed rail projects. Samuelson returned to his earlier theme: except for a few areas such as the Northeast Corridor, he wrote, America lacks the density that would make such technology work. He called the whole idea “a triumph of fancy over fact.”
The latest salvo was fired by the well-known political scientist and columnist Joel Kotkin. Writing in Forbes Magazine, Kotkin delivered a scathing critique of the Administration’s high-speed rail campaign, calling it “a policy delusion.”
“Perhaps nothing so illustrates President Obama’s occasional disconnect with reality than his fervent advocacy of high-speed rail,” Kotkin wrote. Why is Obama so determined to push the high-speed “boondoggle?” Kotkin asked. He blamed it on a “deadly combination of theology and money.” Powerful rail construction interests, construction unions and “ever voracious investment banks,” he wrote, are one element of this pressure group. The “density lobby” is another. It consists of big city mayors, construction firms and urban land owners who look to rail investment to enhance real estate values. And lastly, there are the “true believers,” — planners, academics, green activists, rail fans (and their liberal media echo) “who believe America should be more like Europe–denser, more concentrated in big cities and tied to the rails.” (“Obama’s High-Speed Rail Obsession” Forbes Magazine, February 18; also published in New Geography.com., Feb 18).
However, as Kotkin observed, these forces face mounting resistance. A key obstacle is a group of newly elected fiscally conservative governors such as Florida’s Rick Scott, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich, who understand the potentially huge and continuing obligations that high-speed rail projects could impose on their states’ already stressed budgets. Lacking the governors’ and state legislatures’ consent and cooperation, Obama’s vision has no chance of getting off the ground.
Another source of opposition could be the urban transit advocates who see expensive passenger rail systems compete for limited resources in the Administration’s proposed Unified Transportation Trust Fund. In an era of tough budgets, spending billions on a transportation system that will benefit a relative handful of people and places “is not just illogical. It’s obscene,” concludes Kotkin.
Keeping Florida’s Rail Project Alive
Is there a way to salvage something of the latest Administration disappointment— Gov. Scott’s rejection of federal funding for a Tampa-to-Orlando rail line? A possible answer lies in a proposal advanced by Rep. John Mica (R-FL), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Mr. Mica proposes to scale down the proposed 86-mile high-speed line to an initial 21-mile starter segment from the Orlando International Airport to Disney World. That segment, he contends “holds the potential for not only being a viable project, but one that could turn a profit with a qualified private operator.”
We think there is considerable merit to Mr. Mica’s proposal. The scaled-down project would offer an opportunity to demonstrate the feasibility — and reality— of a public-private partnership in the construction and operation of a passenger rail line. The documented history of high ridership demand between Orlando’s airport and Disney World makes it likely that the rail link could be operated without public subsidies. Moreover, the demonstrated market potential of the line is likely to attract private investors (including the Disney Company) to help fund a portion of the construction costs. Contribution by the State of Florida of the right-of-way (most of which is owned by the State) would further strengthen the fiscal viability of the project.
The slimmed- down Florida project would still generate jobs and offer private construction companies and equipment manufacturers a chance to demonstrate the benefits of modern “higher-speed” rail technology in real-world operating conditions (obviously, true high-speed technology could not be demonstrated on a 21-mile stretch of track; but that would also be the case with the 86-mile stretch of the Tampa-Orlando line with its intermediate station stop at Lakeland).
A positive response by the White House to Mr. Mica’s initiative would be a welcome sign that the Administration is willing to abandon the dogged pursuit of its quixotic vision of reaching 80 percent of Americans with a high-speed rail network, and that it is ready to embrace a more realistic strategy of improving passenger rail transportation opportunistically, in partnership with the private sector, in places where it makes transportation and economic sense.
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.