The magic elixir of high-speed rail

Fix the economy?  High-speed rail.  Cure transportation gridlock?  High-speed rail.  Restore American entrepreneurship?  High-speed rail.  Solve America’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. Goode’s Magic Elixir will cure all that ails you.

Just as those foul-tasting nostrums failed to cure patients’ 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 ain’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 – lots of money — at the myth that is high-speed rail; as if following a magical formula, “if you fund it, they will come.”

Sure, high-speed rail works in other countries – Japan and Europe, for example — 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) – 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 – 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 “give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail” — to which one might ask, “so what?”  Access to a costly rail system means nothing if people won’t use it.

At least one state governor – Florida’s Rick Scott – has seen through the smoke and mirrors of Obama’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 – far beyond the early estimate of $45 billion.

Vice President Biden boldly declared early last year that the administration’s high-speed rail proposal would be the key to “taking cars off congested highways, reducing carbon emissions, and saving billions of dollars in human productivity.”  To the vice president, this may be  – to quote his whispered note to his boss at last year’s health care news conference – another “big, f—ing deal.”  However, with our country facing a staggering, $14 trillion debt and a projected $1.7 trillion budget deficit, let’s hope cooler minds than Biden’s prevail on this one. High-speed rail is an idea whose time has not come; and probably never will.

by – Bob Barr, The Barr Code

162 comments Add your comment

LA

February 28th, 2011
3:50 pm

“It works in every other industrialized nation but the Neanderthals, particularly here in GA”

How are you gonna pay for it, Gump?

Supreme Being

February 28th, 2011
3:52 pm

Mike I bet you miss your trolley car. What a great form of transportation there genius.

LA

February 28th, 2011
3:53 pm

Mike

How many cities had the trolley car in the 50s? Not many.

Mike

February 28th, 2011
3:58 pm

Supreme Being: you don’t have a problem with BILLIONS being spent each month for wars started in Iraq and Afganistan started by Bushie, however it bugs the hell out of you if someone’s getting a couple hundred dollars a month in public assistance; pitiful.

Mike

February 28th, 2011
4:02 pm

“How are you gonna pay for it, Gump?” Wow you’re sharp; who’s writing this stuff for you? Try reading my last comment, perhaps you just might learn something….perhaps…

LA

February 28th, 2011
4:05 pm

“Try reading my last comment, perhaps you just might learn something….perhaps…’

Ok, then tell Obozo to stop both wars and build the train. OH that’s right, he’s not and he can’t get states to sign on……………

Again, come up with a solid plan to pay for it and then we’ll talk. B!tching about the wars isn’t gonna do anything other than make you look foolish.

Hey, why don’t you get him to scrap his health care plan and put that money into building it.

LA

February 28th, 2011
4:09 pm

“you don’t have a problem with BILLIONS being spent each month for wars started in Iraq and Afganistan started by Bushie,’

LOL!!!!! Oh, so it was all Bush? NOPE, lots of Democrats signed on including the VP and Sec of State.

Oh, and Obama is continuing both wars AND Gitmo is opened. And, to top that off, he extended the Bush tax cuts.

JRev

February 28th, 2011
4:12 pm

Atlanta needs a better transit system here before expanding out. MARTA needs more financial support, more stops, etc. MARTA doesn’t work because most people have to drive 15+ minutes just to get to a station, and the bus system is horrible. Only people who don’t have to arrive on time to work use the buses. Atlanta-Charlotte makes no sense, but an Atlanta-Savannah line would imo. It would be great to take a train to the beach. Atlanta-Athens might also work. But Charlotte? I don’t know anyone here who has a need to visit Charlotte on a weekly basis. Gwinnett really screwed up in the early ’90’s when they voted NO to expanding MARTA.

Mike

February 28th, 2011
4:13 pm

LA, are you the dummy sitting on Supreme Being’s lap? Too bad the two of you together can’t assemble one coherent sentence. Once we get out of nation building we can get something accomplished in this country. Have either one of you geniuses every been out of GA? I’ve had the opportunity to visit Toronto, and they have both an underground subway system AND a trolley system. I guess Obama and his forward thinking’s a little too much for either of you to comprehend; ya’ll just want your guns and your Bibles! YEE-HAAA!!!

LA

February 28th, 2011
4:17 pm

“are you the dummy sitting on Supreme Being’s lap? Too bad the two of you together can’t assemble one coherent sentence.’

I love how you and Aquashrill come back with idiotic statements without any proof. Coherent? Not my problem if you can’t read.

“Once we get out of nation building we can get something accomplished in this country. ”

When is that, Mike? Obama continues both wars.

“Have either one of you geniuses every been out of GA?”

Not that it’s any of your business, but yes, I lived in Europe for two years and I travel out of the country at least once a year.

“I’ve had the opportunity to visit Toronto, and they have both an underground subway system AND a trolley system.’

Not sure what that has to do with a national high speed rail system. Toronto is designed differently than Atlanta. Atlanta has MARTA and MARTA is terrible.

“I guess Obama and his forward thinking’s a little too much for either of you to comprehend; ya’ll just want your guns and your Bibles! ”

What forward thinking, troglodyte? A high speed rail system isn’t “forward thinking” when you can’t pay for it. It’s not like Obama is the first person to ever think about that.

Again, how is he gonna pay for a high speed rail system if he continues both wars?

BPJ

February 28th, 2011
4:18 pm

Mr. Barr’s column, and many of the comments, are so confused/misleading that it would take much more time than I have to rebut all this claptrap. I’ll begin by noting that the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce has carefully studied these issues for years, and has concluded that metro Atlanta would benefit greatly from high-speed rail to such destinations as Charlotte, Raleigh, Chattanooga, Birmingham, and Savannah. Sen. Isakson has long been supportive.

Several comments confuse intercity rail and commuter rail. Each stands on its own considerable merits, though it’s worth noting that some of the infrastructure investments for each overlap (the anti-rail crowd tends to count the same expenses twice, such as the multi-modal station having its entire cost attributed to commuter rail, and then again to intercity rail).

As for commuter rail, it is bogus to say “very few” people work Downtown. It is the biggest employment center in metro Atlanta; add in Midtown and other employment centers which easily connect to Downtown by MARTA, and the case is closed.

The Economist magazine has reported that studies show rail travel to be 7 times safer than auto travel.

None of the anti-rail arguments count the cost of building yet another runway, or even a 2nd airport. Yet Hartsfield-Jackson’s capacity could be significantly enhanced if many of these short flights (Charlotte, B’ham, etc.) were taken off its runways.

The weakest point in Barr’s argument is that hoary perennial: “we just don’t have the density in this country”. That’s just wrong in many cases (SF – LA – SD; Atl. – Char.; Houston – Dallas), and it overlooks current demographic trends, which are toward greater urban densities. People are moving back into cities. Really, this isn’t the 1970s, although Barr and others haven’t gotten the memo yet.
Smart countries don’t just plan for existing needs; they look at demographic trends and plan for the future. Barr & friends want Dumb Growth. I think America is too smart for that.

Supreme Being

February 28th, 2011
4:18 pm

Mike I did not anything about war and have a big problem with any wasteful government spending. Government assistance has its place too. However, Obama’s high speed rail plan is nothing more than hot air and pandering to unions and higher taxes for more wasteful government programs. Maybe you should just stick to trolley cars..it seems to be the only thing you are up on.

LA

February 28th, 2011
4:19 pm

“MARTA needs more financial support’

Yeah, because MARTA has a great track record with handling money. How many times has MARTA been in trouble because of mismanaged funds?

“I don’t know anyone here who has a need to visit Charlotte on a weekly basis.’

Yeah, gee, I don’t know either. Could it be that Charlotte is huge banking hub? Or, maybe it’s close to the research triangle where a few great universities reside….

Reid in EAV

February 28th, 2011
4:26 pm

Amazing how Libertarians refuse to apply their own principles to this particular issue. Why have Americans largely not traveled by rail since WWII? Three words: subsidies, subsidies, subsidies. We have chosen to subsidize the crap out of both highways (hello, Gen. Eisenhower) as well as other auto-based infrastructure and air travel. What we have gotten is predicable.

And it doesn’t seem to be working out too well for us, does it? Sure, the merits of true HSR are debatable, but I’d take just plain-and-simple normal-speed rail on an equal footing with the two more privileged forms of transport. Our drive-everywhere society of today is ANYTHING but a market-based outcome, and if Mr. Barr can’t look at the evidence and see this, then he’s no Libertarian.

And oh, can anyone tell me what Peak Oil is? Might want to look into that one.

Reid in EAV

February 28th, 2011
4:27 pm

Btw, in terms of passenger rail, MARTA transports passengers at a lower per-person cost than any peer system in the country today. Bet you didn’t know that, did you?

LA

February 28th, 2011
4:31 pm

“Btw, in terms of passenger rail, MARTA transports passengers at a lower per-person cost than any peer system in the country today. ‘

Doesn’t matter since MARTA and Atlanta don’t mesh well geographically.

Mike

February 28th, 2011
4:35 pm

Hey Supreme Being: Do you have a large head like they do in the science fiction movies? Bet I know what it’s full of. Anyway, all you’re giving me is the same old Republicant talking points; blah,blah, blah…..by the way, my parents grew up in Decatur during the 20’s and 30’s and rode the trolley all over Atlanta and said it was FAST.

LA

February 28th, 2011
4:40 pm

Hey Mike, do you stick corn cobs up your anus and jump around like a circus monkey?

LA

February 28th, 2011
4:41 pm

“Anyway, all you’re giving me is the same old Republicant talking points’

Says the girl who has posted nothing but Democrap talking points. See, Mike, I can play this game too.

“my parents grew up in Decatur during the 20’s and 30’s and rode the trolley all over Atlanta and said it was FAST.”

So your parents are lesbians. Who cares?

Mike

February 28th, 2011
4:41 pm

Very well stated, BJP. Your comments should be in the AJC instead of Barr’s. Good to see someone making sense here; besides, I’ve become bored with trading insults with these toothless double-wide dwelling idiots.

Reid in EAV

February 28th, 2011
4:42 pm

LA: I simply threw that little-known fact (and it is a fact, you can check me) out because people tend to think that MARTA wastes untold billions in corruption and poor decision-making. And yes, it certainly could be run much better than it is (oursourcing operations to a private entity while keeping the infrastructure under public control might be a workable solution.) But in terms of actually moving people from one place to another, MARTA does quite well — and it has to, since it is systematically starved of funding.

So given your cryptic comment that MARTA and Atlanta don’t “mesh well geographically,” why not help them mesh better? More rail lines, more stops? If MARTA works efficiently with “the cross” why not add some more “spaghetti” to the mix? (Just look at DC’s metro: started the same time as MARTA rail, run with similar technology, and now many times the size. My brother in DC lives a full life without a car since it works so well; that’s hardly possible here, even inside 285.)

A more general comment on this subject: anyone who complains about rail subsidies without reckoning with the massive subsidies that enable sprawl (everything from highways that don’t pay for themselves — trust fund or not — to the highway patrol to non-tax-producing land set aside for asphalt) simply isn’t taking the argument seriously. If you want rail to “pay for itself” you should demand the same thing of highways and air travel. Amtrak’s modest subsidy is dwarfed by the billions from the general fund (not covered by the federal gas tax) used to build and maintain highways each year.

LA

February 28th, 2011
4:44 pm

“Your comments should be in the AJC instead of Barr’s.’

They already have Cynthia Tucker.

“I’ve become bored with trading insults with these toothless double-wide dwelling idiots.’

Wow, what a profound insult, troglodyte. Heck, I wonder if you’ll come up with “inbred” in your next comment. Speaking of double-wides, your welfare check should come in the mail next week.

Reid in EAV

February 28th, 2011
4:45 pm

Ah, and I see that this is the usual “AJC Comments” sort of discussion, with insults and ad hominems hurled right and left. Sorry that I bothered.

Mike

February 28th, 2011
4:47 pm

LA, my parents are deceased; A little good-natured ribbing and you go where every good Republicant goes and that’s straight to the gutter. Stay down there in the sewer with that two (excuse me, three) timing Christian Newt, you two deserve each other and make such a loving couple. Bet your mama wishes she had flushed you down the toilet or maybe choked you with your umbilical cord.

LA

February 28th, 2011
4:47 pm

Reid in EAV

The best rail systems work in cities that are grid based. See: NY and Chicago. MARTA will never work because Atlanta is too spread out.

Reid in EAV

February 28th, 2011
4:49 pm

(This, by the way, is one of the few discussions that doesn’t necessarily have to be partisan. The Sec-Trans under Obama — Ray LaHood — is currently the only Republican in the cabinet. And for all my pro-urban, pro-rail biases, I generally swing to the free-market, small-government side of things.)

LA

February 28th, 2011
4:49 pm

“Ah, and I see that this is the usual “AJC Comments” sort of discussion, with insults and ad hominems hurled right and left. Sorry that I bothered.”

I didn’t call you names nor throw out insults at you.

Reid in EAV

February 28th, 2011
4:52 pm

LA: You are brilliant at marshaling unsupported assertions. So I’ll point out a few counterexamples: London, Paris. Both sprawl. Both (particularly London) are grid-averse. And both are car-optional.

And heck, even Los Angeles, for all its spread-out-ness, has gotten rail and transit religion. I’m aware of a growing number of people in LA County choosing to live car-free, which at one time would have boggled my mind.

LA

February 28th, 2011
4:53 pm

“my parents are deceased; A little good-natured ribbing and you go where every good Republicant goes and that’s straight to the gutter. ”

Good natured? Huh, I guess I misread “toothless double-wide dwelling idiots.” Wonder how I could have misinterpreted that?

“Stay down there in the sewer with that two (excuse me, three) timing Christian Newt, you two deserve each other and make such a loving couple.’

Not sure what Newt has to do with me or my comments, but please continue to bring up people/things that have absolutely nothing to do with anything.

“Bet your mama wishes she had flushed you down the toilet or maybe choked you with your umbilical cord.’

And the truth comes out. I love how libs pretend to be “tolerant and peaceful” and then throw out garbage like that.

Thanks for showing us all what a complete and utter disgusting excuse for a human being you really are.

LA

February 28th, 2011
4:55 pm

“You are brilliant at marshaling unsupported assertions. So I’ll point out a few counterexamples: London, Paris. Both sprawl. Both (particularly London) are grid-averse. And both are car-optional.”

Then again, we are talking about the USA, not two small countries with smaller populations than the USA.

“And heck, even Los Angeles, for all its spread-out-ness, has gotten rail and transit religion. I’m aware of a growing number of people in LA County choosing to live car-free, which at one time would have boggled my mind.”

So why does LA have the worst traffic in the entire country?

Reid in EAV

February 28th, 2011
4:56 pm

LA- I don’t care that it’s not at me. I assumed it was only a matter of time.

LA

February 28th, 2011
4:56 pm

“The Sec-Trans under Obama — Ray LaHood — is currently the only Republican in the cabinet. ”

He’s from Illinois. Not exactly your “conservative” area of the country.

LA

February 28th, 2011
4:57 pm

“LA- I don’t care that it’s not at me. I assumed it was only a matter of time.’

You assume too much.

Mike

February 28th, 2011
4:58 pm

I’m done; at work and it’s time to leave. The best to all of you, have a good day.

LA

February 28th, 2011
4:59 pm

“I’m done; at work and it’s time to leave.’

Hope your boss doesn’t find out you’re blogging during pizza delivery hours.

LA

February 28th, 2011
5:01 pm

Reid in EAV

Chicago’s CTA is on the verge of bankruptcy…..again. The rest of Illinois has to pay taxes to cover something they never use unless they go into the city.

Reid in EAV

February 28th, 2011
5:02 pm

L.A. has bad traffic because it has both sprawl AND density, and made a bad mid-century decision to invest heavily in highways and largely abandon all other modes of transit. Today, engineers understand that road capacity is a self-fulfilling prophecy. (You may have heard a phrase called “induced demand.”) Because there is little marginal cost associated with using highways, they will always be used to the max at peak hours. So to put it in a short, memorable way, “you get what you pave for.” And in building the 5, the 405, the Ventura, the 101, etc. etc. L.A. has paved quite a bit.

The saving grace (to me, anyway) is that L.A. is still largely a grid and has lots of density (even if it’s in multiple spread-out nodes) and with the right transit solutions, it can either alleviate this issue or make it possible for more and more people to opt out.

From a libertarian perspective it’s quite easy to solve traffic congestion: just put a variable toll on all the roads. Make it expensive enough at peak hours and the traffic will flow. Then, at 2 a.m., you needn’t charge at all. Highways are simply a socialized good, and when things are both socialized and underpriced, they are oversubscribed. Hence: lines for commodities in communist Russia… and traffic congestion.

LA

February 28th, 2011
5:06 pm

Reid in EAV

L.A. is a complete mess financially. There is no way they can fix any of their problems because the entire state is going bankrupt.

Reid in EAV

February 28th, 2011
5:06 pm

RE: Chicago — one needn’t ever use transit in order to benefit from it. As bad as Chicago traffic is, it would be worse without the CTA. So if you’ve driven on the Eisenhower, guess what? You’ve “used” the CTA. If you’ve patronized a business where employees get there via transit, you’ve “used” the CTA. If you’ve benefited from conventions and other big events where good public transit is a key selling point, you’ve “used” the CTA.

Heck, I don’t use those four-lane “developmental” highways in south Georgia, yet the state is quite willing to tax me to build them. Where’s the outrage over that one?

LA

February 28th, 2011
5:06 pm

“Hence: lines for commodities in communist Russia… and traffic congestion.’

Uh……..communist Russia’s problem was…..communism.

LA

February 28th, 2011
5:08 pm

“As bad as Chicago traffic is, it would be worse without the CTA.’

Then again, I was talking about the state of Illinois and not Chicago.

Reid in EAV

February 28th, 2011
5:09 pm

LA, are you interested in learning something, or do you just want to win? Why the constant subject changes? I cannot speak knowledgeably to the fiscal issues in California. But I do know land-use, transportation and cities and unlike a lot of folks in that boat, I’m generally to the right politically. Best of both worlds. ;)

LA

February 28th, 2011
5:09 pm

Reid in EAV

I wrote: The rest of Illinois has to pay taxes to cover something they never use unless they go into the city.

People who live and work in Champaign, Springfield etc don’t use the CTA in any way unless they visit Chicago.

The same can be said of MARTA and GA. People who live outside of Atlanta don’t give a crap about it and don’t want their tax dollars paying for it.

Make sense?

LA

February 28th, 2011
5:11 pm

“LA, are you interested in learning something, or do you just want to win? ”

What in the world are you talking about?

“Why the constant subject changes?’

What did I change the subject on?

“I cannot speak knowledgeably to the fiscal issues in California.’

And therein lies your problem.

Reid in EAV

February 28th, 2011
5:12 pm

“Uh……..communist Russia’s problem was…..communism.”

Oh, my goodness — this is like trying to talk to my second grader. Yes, of course! But what was the economic system? It was a command economy. Arbitrarily-set prices. Socialized goods. Hence: lines, and lots of them. Same deal with the highways. No pricing mechanism, and something built by the government that we’re not charged for each time we use. Again: lines.

LA

February 28th, 2011
5:16 pm

“Oh, my goodness — this is like trying to talk to my second grader.”

You may want to back off on the insults lest you want to tread rough ground.

“But what was the economic system?”

Garbage.

LA

February 28th, 2011
5:17 pm

Reid in EAV

Final warning. If you want to continue to debate this topic without insults, stop now with the insults.

Reid in EAV

February 28th, 2011
5:20 pm

“Tread rough ground?” LOL! Oh no, he/she is going to insult me! Duck and cover! Sound the alarm!

Right. I am clearly wasting my time here. So long, LA.

Mike

February 28th, 2011
5:25 pm

High speed rail will solve many of the problems facing the nation, and the sooner you all drop the partisan politics and focus on the reality of the day – such as the fact that oil is rising to the point of choking America – the sooner we can get on with real solutions and not more hot air. Building more roads as a solution shows that you all are stuck in the past, and are ignoring the reality of the world. High speed rail is the only thing we can do as a nation to significantly reduce our oil consumption as part of our daily life. THERE IS NO OTHER SOLUTION… otherwise we would be hearing one from the so-called experts… what are they?

LA

February 28th, 2011
5:25 pm

“LOL! Oh no, he/she is going to insult me! Duck and cover! Sound the alarm!”

Nope, I never did insult you.

“Right. I am clearly wasting my time here. So long, LA.”

Buh bye.