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


February 28th, 2011
5:28 pm

“High speed rail will solve many of the problems facing the nation”

No it won’t and you have nothing to back it up.

“and the sooner you all drop the partisan politics and focus on the reality of the day’

Pot, meet kettle.

“such as the fact that oil is rising to the point of choking America ‘

You can think Obama for that.

“Building more roads as a solution shows that you all are stuck in the past’

Yet no one brought up roads.

“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.’

That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

“otherwise we would be hearing one from the so-called experts’

You mean like you? LOL

Mr. Ponce

February 28th, 2011
5:29 pm


Lie much?

Supreme Being

February 28th, 2011
5:35 pm

Mike … better move your double wide…tornados are in the area and your food stamps won’t cover the rapairs. Now hop on that trolley and hurry home and think about that high speed rail you could be on.


February 28th, 2011
6:37 pm

Now I know why Bob Barr is an ex-congressman! He is too wise and too smart to mingle with the idiots in the US Congress. Anyone with one eye and half sense knows that air pollution in GA and man-made global warming is a scam. We don’t need another boondoggle to add to Amtrack and MARTA.


Jim Loomis

February 28th, 2011
9:04 pm

Ideological drivel based on ignorance, willful or otherwise. Here’s a fact for you: ALL forms of public transportation are subsidized. The feds provide the air traffic control system for the nation’s airlines and states and municipalities provide airports. Why are interstate highways built with reinforced concrete? Certainly not for my Toyota Tercel. Are you proposing toll boths on bike lanes? And should sidewalks be paid for by the businesses and homeowners that benefit from them? Yet despite steadily increasing demand and all the social and environmental benefits, you start foaming at the mouth and call passenger rail a boondoggle because it’s subsidized! Mark Twain said it best, sir: Better to say nothing and let people think you’re a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.


March 1st, 2011
12:35 am

We have already spent billions to keep Amtrak afloat ( yes, you can now get a patdown AFTER you leave the train). What’s few more trillion gonna hurt.


March 1st, 2011
8:40 am

Good article again, Mr. Barr. I wish the same logic was applied to NASA–how many more trips do we need to take to outer space (and its cost)? The only place I see rail needed of any kind is in densely populated cities, yet even then, you have to consider the boondoggle of a rail system like L.A. Still, I have heard that the high-speed rail systems in Germany and France are solvent and effective–what is the difference between the U.S.?


March 1st, 2011
8:46 am

“I wish the same logic was applied to NASA’

Don’t worry, Obama has given NASA over for “muslim outreach.”


March 1st, 2011
8:55 am

A. The cost for High Speed Rail is a pittance when compared to the unfunded deficits of entitlements.

B. There are a few areas in America where the density matches that of European Countries. Namely, Florida, parts of Texas, and parts of California.

C. Across the other parts of the country, the solution, as proposed, does not really fit the description of High Speed Rail. It’s actually just providing rail service where there isn’t any currently.

I have no illusions that there might be better ways to spend this money. But Barr’s argument, as always, holds no water. The guy is an intellectual charlatan.


March 1st, 2011
9:08 am

Trains are subsidized? I wasn’t aware that roads were constructed and maintained free of charge. Until every road in the US is made a toll road and operates on a break even basis, the rail subsidy argument won’t hold water.

Bill Doxey

March 1st, 2011
12:06 pm

Rep. Barr, How about “regular speed” commuter trains on existing tracks as a solution? I live in Carrollton. Be nice to drive to Bremen and “train” to downtown (40 mins.). Save on gas and parking and reduce traffic congestion/accidents..


March 6th, 2011
2:28 pm

Wow… I started to read this list of comments to see what people thought about the article. And it rapidly deteriorated into name-calling and stone-throwing. If this is the most intelligent kind of debate we Americans can have, I seriously fear for our country. Do you all represent the Atlanta area?