High-Speed Fail

May 6, 2010

As our earlier National Train Day post suggests, government and trains don’t exactly work well together. This begs the question: why is government plowing billions of dollars into high-speed rail?

Nonetheless, Washington has proposed to spend $8 billion more taxpayer dollars on this dubious project. According to transportation expert Randall O’Toole:

High-speed rail is an obsolete technology that makes no sense for America. While it is technically possible to build fast trains, that doesn’t mean people will ride them. All it really means is that politicians will get to spend lots of taxpayer dollars.

Americans may love the high-speed trains in France or Japan. Yet the average residents of those countries ride the high-speed trains less than 400 miles per year. Every taxpayer in those countries helps subsidize the trains, yet fares are so high that only the wealthy use them.

Second, President Obama announces these high-speed rail grants immediately after proposing a budget freeze. Yet high-speed rail will require not $8 billion, or $80 billion, but hundreds of billions of dollars of spending with very little return to taxpayers.

President Obama also belies his claim to care about the middle-class taxpayers who will have to pay for his high-speed trains, but will rarely ride them. Amtrak’s current fares for its high-speed Acela trains from New York to Washington DC start at $133, compared with bus fares that are typically around $15 — and many bus companies, unlike Amtrak, offer free WiFi. No wonder unsubsidized buses carry three times as many people in the Boston-Washington corridor as the Acela.

For a moment, let’s suppose it was appropriate and acceptable for the federal government to start up a brand new transportation business (much less run one: Amtrak).  Operating under this pretense and supposing officials in Washington believed that high-speed rail was a worthwhile expense, they should still let taxpayers know what the true cost could be and not pretend that the initial $8 billion is the only cost required.

In reality, it would be better to let market forces determine if such an endeavor is worthwhile.  Before committing taxpayer money, it would be wise to see how much private investment can be collected for such a project. If the answer is “not much” that should be a sign that the project is not necessarily economically viable. With our record deficit spending, the government is in no shape to be making new unaffordable promises.

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