Fix the economy? High-speed rail. Cure transportation gridlock? High-speed rail. Restore American entrepreneurship? High-speed rail. Solve Americaâ€™s health-care problems? High-speed rail. Hearing President Barack Obama extol the virtues of high-speed rail is like listening to a 19th Century carnival hawker claim a single bottle of Dr. Goodeâ€™s Magic Elixir will cure all that ails you.
Just as those foul-tasting nostrums failed to cure patientsâ€™ maladies, high-speed rail will solve none of our pressing national problems; in fact, it will make them worse by increasing our deficit and draining money from more productive endeavors.
The fact of the matter is, not since World War II has America been a country in which its people travel by rail. Yes, there are a few transportation corridors in which commuter rail serves as a popular means of transportation; the rail link between New York City and Washington, D.C., for example. But beyond those few examples, Americans overwhelmingly prefer to travel by car or plane. Environmentalists, train buffs, and President Obama may wish it were otherwise; but it just ainâ€™t so.
Yet, in his State-of-the-Union address last month, and in his recently unveiled FY 2011 budget, Obama persists in proposing to throw money â€“ lots of money â€” at the myth that is high-speed rail; as if following a magical formula, â€œif you fund it, they will come.â€
Sure, high-speed rail works in other countries â€“ Japan and Europe, for example â€” and the trains themselves are really cool-looking. But the economies and geography of such countries are far different from ours. High-speed rail is not a one-size-fits-all solution that performs identically in one country or region as in another. If built here with taxpayer dollars (which is the only way they will be built) â€“ such projects inevitably will become black holes into which countless billions of dollars will disappear.
I heard the sales pitch repeatedly during the years I served in the Congress. One time, it was an Atlanta-to-Chattanooga high-speed rail line; another time, Atlanta-Birmingham, or maybe Charlotte. All these proposals lacked one thing â€“ a basis in reality.
Yet, here we are again, in 2011, debating high-speed rail; this one weighing in at an initial cost of a half-trillion dollars, exclusive of the inevitably massive operating costs, over the next 25 years. During his State of the Union address last month, Obama claimed his plans would â€œgive 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed railâ€ â€” to which one might ask, â€œso what?â€ Access to a costly rail system means nothing if people wonâ€™t use it.
At least one state governor â€“ Floridaâ€™s Rick Scott â€“ has seen through the smoke and mirrors of Obamaâ€™s proposal, and already turned down $2.4 billion in federal funds for a proposed, Orlando-Tampa high-speed rail line. Scott knows the initial dollars are the tip of the iceberg, and the system would wind up costing Florida taxpayers many times that figure over the long run.
Other states that have taken the high-speed rail plunge are feeling the bite that is fiscal reality. California, for example, is in the initial phases of a vast high-speed rail network. But costs are expected to run between $65 and $81 billion â€“ far beyond the early estimate of $45 billion.
Vice President Biden boldly declared early last year that the administrationâ€™s high-speed rail proposal would be the key to â€œtaking cars off congested highways, reducing carbon emissions, and saving billions of dollars in human productivity.â€ To the vice president, this may be â€“ to quote his whispered note to his boss at last yearâ€™s health care news conference â€“ another â€œbig, fâ€”ing deal.â€ However, with our country facing a staggering, $14 trillion debt and a projected $1.7 trillion budget deficit, letâ€™s hope cooler minds than Bidenâ€™s prevail on this one. High-speed rail is an idea whose time has not come; and probably never will.
by â€“ Bob Barr, The Barr Code