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Michael Barone: Congress, Governors Nix Obama’s High-Speed Trains

Lawmakers are not on board with a plan pointing down a one-way path toward wasteful spending

Dead. Kaput. Through. Finished. Washed up. Gone-zo.

That, I think, is a fair description of the Obama administration’s attempt to build high-speed rail lines across America.

It hasn’t failed because of a lack of willingness to pony up money. The Obama Democrats’ February 2009 stimulus package included $8 billion for high-speed rail projects. The Democratic Congress appropriated another $2.5 billion.

But Congress is turning off the spigot. The Republican-controlled House has appropriated zero dollars for high-speed rail. The Democratic-majority Senate Appropriations Committee has appropriated $100 million in its budget recommendation.

That’s effectively “a vote of ‘no confidence’ to President (Barack) Obama’s infrastructure initiative,” transportation analyst Ken Orski concludes, “a bipartisan signal that Congress has no appetite for pouring more money into a venture that many lawmakers have come to view as a poster child for wasteful spending.”

The Department of Transportation is struggling to push some of the previously appropriated money out the door. Some $480 million of planning, engineering and construction grants were made to 11 state governments in September.

But this doesn’t build many rail lines, and with one exception, none of them is really high-speed, like Japan’s TGV or Japan’s bullet train. The governors of Wisconsin and Ohio nixed train lines that wouldn’t provide faster service than current parallel Interstate highways. The governor of Florida canceled a faster line between Orlando and Tampa, which are only 90 miles apart.

The one remaining project that really promises high-speed rail travel, in California, faces cost overruns that would be astonishing — except for the fact that cost overruns have been standard operating procedure in high-speed rail projects around the world.

The feds insist California build a 160-mile segment in the Central Valley that is estimated to cost at least $10 billion and will have virtually no riders. The estimated cost of the whole project has zoomed from $43 billion to $67 billion, and there seems to be no prospect of any more public- or private-sector money.

Obama has rhapsodized about the wonders of getting on a train across the street from your office and traveling to another city, and he has presented high-speed rail as a technology of the future. But high-speed rail is futuristic in the same way as Disney’s original Tomorrowland. Gee, someday you’ll be able to take frozen peas from your freezer and heat them on your electric range.

Passenger rail is an old technology that is particularly attractive to planners, the folks who want to force us out of our cars and into subways that travel only on the routes they design. Let’s make everyone live the way people do in Manhattan!

This is contrary to the thrust of emerging information technologies, which let us take whatever path on the Internet we want. Sort of like automobiles.

Moreover, the idea that it would be great to put high-speed rail lines all over the country shows an underappreciation of American geography and of some of the nation’s genuine strengths.

High-speed rail can compete with air travel only over limited distances, but the United States is a continental-sized country. Japan and France, as you may have noticed, are a lot smaller.

China, which is continent-sized, too, has been building high-speed rail, but it’s cutting back now and slowing down the trains after a bad accident. Brazil, also continent-sized, is dropping plans for a Rio de Janeiro-Sao Paulo line. Its airlines and buses already work fine.

America’s alleged lag in high-speed rail is also a consequence of our excellence in freight rail. Over three decades after President Jimmy Carter’s deregulation, freight rail has squeezed out costs and made shipped goods much cheaper for all of us. Europe and Japan have lousy freight rail and pay more for things.

The reason that’s important is that truly high-speed trains cannot use freight rail tracks. Freight trains travel slower and have a hard time getting out of the way of passenger trains traveling 200 miles per hour. Japan’s bullet train and France’s TGV operate on dedicated tracks specially built for them. That’s expensive.

As a frequent traveler from Washington to New York, I’d love to see a real high-speed train in the Northeast Corridor — the only place in the country where it might make economic sense. But if not having one is the price to be paid for the demise of the Obama high-speed rail boondoggle, I’m happy to pay it.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. Click here to contact him. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelBarone.

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