Politics

The Great Train Robbery

High-speed rail is like Solyndra on steroids.

By From the May 2013 issue

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NOTHING FITS the Obama administration’s economic project better than high-speed rail. It’s based on visions of a utopian future, employs gobs of union labor in its construction, can be used to reward political allies and donors, and makes use of analysts eager to churn out dubious studies justifying it on economic grounds. Call it Solyndra on steroids.

The poster child for high-speed rail is California’s proposed 500-mile bullet train from Anaheim to San Francisco. Since it would begin at Disneyland and end at cultural la-la land, critics can’t resist snarking that the train would be on a fast track from “Fantasy to Delusion.”

California voters approved a $10 billion bond for high-speed rail by 53 percent back in 2008. At the time, the state’s high-speed rail authority touted a price tag of only $33 billion, most of it to be financed by grants from Washington, D.C., and money from private investors. No subsidies would be needed; train fares would cover all of the project’s operating costs. But now things look different. The authority currently estimates the gold-plated train will cost upwards of $98 billion.

So far, Congress has ponied up only $3.9 billion in actual money for construction, and that’s on the condition that the state build the first segment of the train in the sparsely settled Central Valley, presumably because there’s less resistance in rural areas than in big cities filled with environmental purists. But increasingly both rural and urban voters are turning up their noses at “slick rail.” Polls show two-thirds of Californians now want a referendum on it, and a clear majority would vote to throw the project in reverse.

One reason is that the premises behind high-speed rail now look more Rube Goldberg than Star Trek. Certainly its purported goals—getting people out of cars and reducing energy consumption, all paid for with OPM (other people’s money)—look increasingly dubious. Train backers are relying on greatly exaggerated ridership projections, hallucinatory promises of billions in private investment, and the false expectation that debt-ridden Washington will bail out the cost overruns.

Wendell Cox, a public policy consultant and author of papers on high-speed rail for the Heritage and Reason Foundations, wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year that studies in Europe, Japan, and China show

car users typically avoid high-speed rail because of its high cost and the time and expense added by having to rent a car or hire taxis to reach their final destinations. World-wide the largest share of high-speed rail riders are people who used to ride slower trains. There are not enough California train riders now to create a solid base of future fast-train riders. And there is nothing to support the notion that current motorists will switch to rail in substantial numbers.

Jerry Brown, California’s Democratic governor, is still a big train backer. But other governors are bailing out of programs in their states. Florida’s Rick Scott killed a Tampa–Orlando train after he learned the cost and ridership assumptions were cooked. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and Ohio governor John Kasich walked away from similar projects.

Even in California, several staunch supporters of high-speed rail are having second thoughts. In order to avoid environmental opposition, the high-speed rail authority has abandoned plans to lay the entire route with new track. Instead, in the Bay Area, the new trains would share tracks with local commuter lines. This so-called “blended system” jeopardizes the legal commitment made to California voters in the 2008 bond measure they approved: that a trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco would take no more than 2 hours and 40 minutes. In addition, money given to local commuter systems by the high-speed rail authority violates pledges that no bond money would be diverted to such purposes.

Quentin Kopp, a former San Francisco state senator and judge who served on the rail authority, has turned against the current plan. “They have just mangled this project,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “They distorted it. We don’t get a high-speed rail system. It is the great train robbery.” He is joined in his skepticism by Jim Mills, a former state senate leader who once ran the rail authority, and Lynn Schenk, a former San Diego congresswoman who currently sits on the board of the authority.

In Washington, House GOP whip Kevin McCarthy, another former high-speed rail backer turned critic, is adamant that the “train to nowhere” isn’t leaving any station. “The authority’s plan is irresponsible and reckless,” he said in a March statement, “and that is why I am developing legislation to stop more hard-earned taxpayer dollars from being wasted on California high-speed rail.”

Ground is scheduled to be broken later this year on the train’s 131-mile initial segment in the Central Valley, and until then, it’s a race between foolishness and common sense. Supporters are motivated by the theory that the project, once started, will be built to completion, and so they are determined to clear any obstacle from their path. The threat of environmental lawsuits prompted Governor Brown to propose shielding the train from such litigation, though he backed down under pressure. But the real threat will likely come from state taxpayers. Next year, they will begin paying interest on the bonds issued for the project—annual payments of $380 million for the next 30 years—at the same time many people are increasingly upset at crumbling infrastructure, deferred maintenance, and the failure to build any new roads.

If California breaks ground, look for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to push hard for his own choo-choo boondoggle to benefit his native Nevada. The proposed “Xpress West” train would link Las Vegas with the small town of Victorville, 175 miles down the road in California. The theory is that residents of Los Angeles will drive between 50 and 100 miles to Victorville, get off the freeway, park, and board the train for the last leg of their journey. “It’s almost as harebrained an idea as the farm-to-farm segments of high-speed rail in the Central Valley,” the transit analyst Wendell Cox told me. Certainly, the odds of such a project paying off are much less than any being offered at Vegas casinos. 

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About the Author

John H. Fund is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of the Stealing Elections (Encounter Books).