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High Speed Rail Fail: US Edition

Via Meadia has covered the high speed rail fail in China; now this ‘technology of the future’ seems to be suffering a meltdown here in the US.

Since the Obama presidency began, various proposals for high-speed rail have been popping up across the country—Florida, Wisconsin, and California have each considered plans to build the “transportation of the future.” But there is one thing excitable planners forgot to ask: does anybody want it? Florida and Wisconsin have already turned down federal funding for high-speed rail, citing high costs and low popularity. Now it appears that deep-blue California might do the same. From the Wall Street Journal:

The California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group—which the state legislature appointed to analyze funding for the rail system—questioned the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s plan to start construction without any assurance of future funding from the federal government, among other factors.

Moving ahead “represents an immense financial risk” for California, the group said in its report, echoing concerns from critics who say the project could leave state taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars in future costs. [. . .]

The Field Poll, a research group primarily active in California, found in a December survey that 59% of Californians would reject the bond package if the vote were held again.

Republicans have what looks at this early stage like a lock on the House in 2012 and seem likely to win the Senate.  That means federal funding for more high speed rail is as dead as the dodo for some time to come; without vast federal help no state can rationally make a commitment to visionary and expensive rail projects.

It looks like the transportation of the future—like the energy of the future—will remain a dream in the minds of blue politicians and trendy urban planners for years to come.

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  • Kris

    “59% of Californians would reject the bond package if the vote were held again.”

    I am reminded of something I read a long time ago: “Democracy is sometimes a learning process, and the lessons aren’t always cheap.” Free lunches are the most expensive kind.

  • Alear

    Recall also that Governor Kasich of Ohio also turned down the high-speed rail money.

  • thibaud

    High speed rail is the [enticing] dream of blue state pols: it’s big infrastructure spending that promotes urban density and dollars while theoretically quashing the dread monsters of sprawl and freeways. The thought of hopping in a train and zipping from one lovely urban center to another a la the London-Paris Chunnel inspires not just liberals but anyone else who’s taken trains in Europe.

    In reality, in the US rail simply doesn’t work outside of a handful of unique circumstances such as point-to-point airport shuttles. It makes utterly no difference to urban land development patterns, which as Joel Kotkin reminds us, are driven by proximity to high-paying jobs, good schools and livable neighborhoods, not access to rail transit.

    It is a bad hoax, a hardy perennial of US Keynesians, environmentalists and urban leftists who cannot accept that suburban America is strong, prosperous, growing, here to stay.

  • Marty

    I am reading “Ralroaded” by Richard White, and heartily recommend it. It’s about the transcontinental railroads of the 1860s-1890s and beyond the parallels with corruption between government and businesses (think, Solyndra on steroids), it makes the larger point that while transcontinental railroads were a good idea, they were not a good idea in the 1860s, 1870s or maybe even 1880s. The country wasn’t developed enough to support and economically justify them, and they wasted huge amounts of capital while enriching a few mostly corrupt individuals and horribly distorting investment and devleopment patterns, leading to problems we are still wrestling with. The parallels with current government fixations like clean energy and hi-speed rail are almost breathtaking.

  • gooch mango

    These high speed rail projects are a perfect illustration of what is wrong with the country today. They say it’s the Transportation of the Future… heh. Hardly. Let’s compare it to projects of the past, shall we?

    The Interstate Highway system gave the people what they wanted (increased mobility and autonomy) and paid for itself thru increased economic activity and efficiency.

    The California Water Project, Hoover Dam, the TVA, et al gave the people what they wanted (power and water) and paid for themselves by enabling economic & population growth.

    The ports and airports gave the people what they wanted (access to the world) and are largely self-supporting… some are even cash cows for their host city/state.

    But these high speed rail systems do none of that. They will be permanent taxeaters. They will be used mainly by a small segment of the population, not the masses. They bring no increase in autonomy to the people. They will produce no economic boom as they merely duplicate existing transportation options (more like “bringing coal to Newcastle” than “bringing water to the desert”.) In short, the only thing they have in common with the great infrastructure projects of the past is their size and their cost — in every other way, they are their opposites.

    This is not infrastructure, this is a vanity project.

    This is a gee wiz toy for urban planners, a zippy lounge/workspace for executives, a jobs program for connected contractors, and lifetime employment for DOT bureaucrats. What it ISN’T is mass transportation. What it ISN’T is an engine of growth. What it ISN’T is a catalyst for middle class prosperity.

    That it is pushed so heavily tells us all we need to know about America’s current elites — they are narrow and parochial, incapable of seeing the nation through anybody’s eyes but their own. Since this project would be useful and lucrative for them and their peers (i.e. government workers/contractors and upper class white collar workers) it must be good for everybody. Today’s American Elites: Wildly self-referential (and self-reverential to boot).

    They are unfit to run a nation for the people and by the people. Aw heck, they can’t even SEE it.

  • gavin

    high speed rail;1920 100 mph.
    air travel;1920 100 mph.
    high speed rail;2012 300 mph
    let us not talk of the TSA so that we are not sent to the gulags,BUT,any trip over 300 miles will not be done by rail fast or slow.
    Freight is another storey

  • gavin

    hey thats not what i wrote

  • Luke Lea

    If, where, and when high speed rail makes sense, the private money will be there.

  • http://www.riseofthecenter.com/ Solomon Kleinsmith

    This money should be spent on things we already know have economic multiplier effects. Light rail systems in cities with congestion issues have proven over and over to be fantastic investments, can often be partially paid with tax increment financing and are a hell of a lot cheaper to build out than high speed rail pipe dreams. They could build light rail all over the country, and expand lines in cities where it already exists and is successful, for the cost of one of these ridiculous lines.

  • http://www,mocommonsense.blogspot.com JW

    Let’s not forget that it’s mainly Republican governors and legislatures sending the money back because they can’t see the forest for the trees.
    Surburbia might be fine now, but wait until gas is $10 a gallon. The people will need rail, they just don’t know it yet.

  • Otis McWrong

    @ Solomon: there is not a light rail system anyplace in the world that covers it costs. New York comes close with the subways if you back out pensions and capital expenditures. That’s it. None.

    @JW: “The people don’t know it yet” but wise bureaucrats and President Lightweight do. How nice that they can see the future and the great unwashed can not. The corollary for you is that its mainly Dem governors accepting the money. Because that’s what they do – help themselves to other people’s money and shower it on their constituents (unions, the politically connected, criminals, etc).

    I live in Florida and FL rejecting the federal (you can also use the term “other people’s money” in place of federal if you’d prefer precision) rail was the only thing to do. Tampa and Orlando are two hours apart through mostly agricultural counties. Both cities are sprawled out (meaning you need a car when you get off the train) and nobody goes from one to the other except when going to or from Disney World. Florida would have been on the hook for the ongoing costs. Governor Scott did the right thing. Though I admit he can’t see the future like you and Harry Reid can.

  • WigWag

    Professor Mead is merely one more in a long line of naysayers suffering from the incredulity of the timid. One can just as easily imagine his blog posts railing against the Erie Canal, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Interstate Highway System or the numerous public works projects pushed through the New York State Legislature by Robert Moses. It seems that he is blessed with brilliance and eloquence but not with imagination or audacity.

    I have no idea whether high speed rail is a good idea or not but I do know that the willingness of the private sector to finance it or build it means nothing.

    The Erie Canal was built without a penny of federal money; in January, 1809, Thomas Jefferson, who was famously incapable of managing his own finances, called it “little short of madness.”

    Private financing was also impossible to obtain for such a high risk project so the Erie Canal was paid for entirely by bonds floated by the State of New York. Had Via Meadia been around at the time, it is easy to picture Professor Mead directing his invective against Governor DeWitt Clinton, the main proponent of the project. It is entirely possible, even likely that Clinton’s enthusiastic advocacy of the canal cost him the Presidency but despite this, through his perseverance, he delivered to his State and his country a great gift

    Of course, despite the objections of the rabble who opposed it, the Erie Canal turned out to be one of the most important development projects in American history.

    To quote Peter L. Bernstein, author of “Wedding of the Waters” when DeWitt Clinton celebrated the opening of the canal by pouring a keg of water from Lake Erie into the Atlantic Ocean, “the end result would lead to an historic explosion of commerce, ideas and technological change. By bringing the interior to the seas and the seas into the interior, the Erie Canal would shape a great nation, knit the sinews of the Industrial Revolution, propel globalization-extending America’s networks outside its own borders and revolutionize the production and supply of food for the entire world.”

    The canal also forged a true “United” States by connecting what was then the west with the eastern seaboard.

    Can high speed trains do for the United States what they have done for Europe? Can the impact of a high speed rail system even remotely approach the impact of the Erie Canal?

    Who knows?

    But one thing is clear, the naysayers about the Erie Canal made exactly the same kind of arguments that naysayers about high speed trains are making now.

    Only the government has the ability to support the type of infrastructure projects that can keep America great. What’s remarkable is how pessimistic, nasty and shortsighted opponents of all government funded infrastructure projects are.

    The critics lack audacity, imagination and a vision for American greatness. They may think an America that recedes to a quaint and antiquated form of federalism will insure a prosperous America but they are wrong.

    It isn’t about high speed rail; it’s about a group of people so unimaginative and timid that they simply lack the vision that inspired the people who built this country against all odds.

    Like the critics of the Erie Canal most of the opponents of high speed trains are simply temperamentally incapable of imaging an America that is even greater than the country we already have.
    .

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    None of the high speed rails in the world operate without huge government subsidies. The only route in world that operates in the black, is between Lyon and Paris, with the rest of the high speed rail in France losing money.
    The only reason for these boondoggles is the Graft.

  • Kris

    WigWag@12: “But one thing is clear, the naysayers about the Erie Canal made exactly the same kind of arguments that naysayers about high speed trains are making now.”

    In the words of Carl Sagan: “They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

  • Corlyss

    I have no doubt the Obama administration, together with the California delusional, will pay off all the right people to get the decision they want.

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