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Commentary Detail

High Speed Rail a Boondoggle
Commentary by: Wendell Cox
Aired November 17, 2010

Perhaps the most unmistakable message out of the recent midterm elections is that we have no business spending money we don't have on things we don't need. There were already indications of a revolution in spending policy, with Tea Parties taking aim at wasteful spending around the nation.

You knew something was going on when Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey cancelled the nation's largest infrastructure project, a 12 billion dollar rail tunnel under the Hudson River because of the extra money it was going to cost the state. What made this decision even more significant was that the tunnel was already under construction. This may be the first time since the French gave up on their Panama Canal plans in the late 1800s, that such a large project was cancelled after construction began.

One of the Obama Administration's principal transportation programs has been an interest in building high speed rail. At least that's what they call it. But, with a couple of hideously expensive exceptions in California and Florida, none of the proposed projects would qualify as high speed rail in the international sense, such as in Japan, France or China.

Generally, the trains would operate at speeds barely competitive with automobile door to door travel times, while costing riders and taxpayers much more. For example, the Obama Administration has funded a train from Cincinnati through Columbus to Cleveland in Ohio that would average only 50 miles per hour.

Things are little better in Wisconsin, where a so-called high speed rail line would reach speeds of 110 miles per hour between Milwaukee and Madison, yet would average less than 60 miles per hour. About the only people who would gain from these turtles on tracks would be the rail contractors who have paved their way to profits with political donations.

Not everyone, however, has bought into this folly. Governor Elect John Kasich has promised to cancel the Ohio train. And, Governor-Elect Scott Walker has promised to cancel the Wisconsin train, except that he was beaten to the punch a few days after the election by sitting Democratic Governor James Doyle.

What is going on here?

Well, there is an increasing recognition that high speed rail, so-called or genuine, has nothing to offer that we do not already have --- and it costs a lot more. Intercity rail does not remove cars from the highway.

The so-called high speed rail lines such as those planned for the St. Louis to Kansas City and Chicago corridors would be much slower than air travel.

The claims of fuel efficiency and lower greenhouse gas emissions fail to take into consideration the stunning fuel efficiency gains ahead for both for cars and airliners. Even where genuine high speed rail lines are proposed, such as in California, the cost to remove each ton of greenhouse gas is at least 100 times the current price on carbon markets.

Then there is the fact that any cost overruns must be paid for by state taxpayers. This is a real concern since international research reveals rail contractors to be real experts at driving costs far above original estimates. Already, the so-called high speed rail line from St. Louis to Chicago will cost 8 times the original projections, and that's after adjustment for inflation.

Missouri recently received 4.1 million dollars from the federal government to plan the so-called high speed rail line from St. Louis to Kansas City. Funding like this is best thought of as a gift that will just keep taking. Governor Nixon should pull the plug on this boondoggle before it goes any further.

(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)

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Wendell Cox


Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy consulting firm in the St. Louis metropolitan area. He is a visiting professor at a national university in Paris and has served terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission and the Amtrak Reform Council. He also serves as vice-president of CODATU, and co-author of the annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey. He has a BA in Government from California State University in Los Angeles and an MBA from Pepperdine University in Los Angeles.

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