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Con: Rail boondoggle should be permanently side-tracked

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Amy Ridenour
March 19, 2011
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, Can high-speed rail boost the U.S. economy?

An astute journalist in the 20th century once defined public relations as “organized lying.” Keep that in mind as a barrage of newsfeatures and commentaries extolling the benefits of President Obama’s high-speed rail initiatives appear in coming days.


Indeed, some of Washington’s largest and most ruthless public relations firms are spearheading the effort to revive rail, and no wonder.


Billions of taxpayer dollars are on the table and likely to be picked up by foreign companies such as Canada’s Bombardier and Germany’s Siemens. Unfortunately, the money they’ll pocket will come from American taxpayers at a time of record federal deficits and depressingly high unemployment.


Tea party members who consider Obama to be the ultimate spender had that view reinforced when he pledged in his State of the Union address that 80 percent of Americans will have access to bullet trains in a mere 25 years.


A few weeks later, Vice President Joe Biden, one of the few politicians who regularly rides Amtrak, proposed spending $53 billion to get high-speed rail on track.


The Obama administration already has set aside more than $10 billion for super-fast rail projects, but many of its partners in state governments are dubious.


Newly elected Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker rejected $810 million for a line between Madison and Milwaukee, noting that motorists already can drive the 79-mile route on state freeways in just over an hour. Walker vigorously campaigned against the project last fall.


Walker’s GOP counterpart in Ohio, former U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich, also campaigned against a $400 million federal grant that would have created a high-speed passenger service between Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, his state’s three largest cities, wryly observing that its top speed of 79 mph was far too slow to attract many passengers.


Another Republican newcomer, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, is highly skeptical of the federal government’s proposed 84-mile high-speed route from the Orlando airport to downtown Tampa—even though the U.S. Department of Transportation has promised to pony up $2.4 billion of $2.7 billion projected price tag.


Even California, where free-spending politicians have long dreamed of an 800-mile super-line from San Francisco to San Diego, is having second thoughts. Sober-minded legislators in Sacramento are beginning to ask how a state staring at a $28 billion deficit by the fall of 2012 can afford to shell out $43 billion for a train where a one-way ticket would cost more than $200 or nearly four times the ticket for an air flight.


Complicating matters, the California fast line ironically has attracted the wrath of normally green San Francisco Bay-area residents, who are worried about property values, and Central Valley farmers, who are concerned about crop damage.


The only area in the United States with enough population to make high-speed rail feasible is the Northeast Corridor spanning Washington to Boston, where Amtrak’s Acela Express now achieves top speeds of 150 mph but averages a slow-motion 70 mph because it must share track with other trains.


Acquiring enough land through eminent domain actions and constructing the high-tech rails needed for a Northeast high-speed rail line likely would be prohibitively expensive. Amtrak’s current estimate—which many experts consider a decidedly low-ball one—says it would take 25 years and cost $117 billion.


Unfortunately, Biden, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and other Obama higher-ups still view rail travel through a 1950 lens of nostalgia, when one could enjoy the overnight luxury of the 20th Century Limited—leaving Grand Central Station in the evening and disembarking the next morning in downtown Chicago.


Those days—like Alfred Hitchcock, who had Cary Grant and Eva-Marie Saint do just that in his 1959 thriller “North by Northwest”—are long gone.


Amy Ridenour is president of the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank in Washington. Readers may write to her at: NCPPR, 501 Capitol Court NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; Web site: www.nationalcenter.org; e-mail: aridenournationalcenter.org.

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