High-Speed Rail as the New Political Football?

Over at National Journal‘s Transportation Experts blog, Fawn Johnson asks whether or not high-speed rail has become a new political football in the United States. Governors-elect Walker (Wisc.) and Kasich (Ohio) ran on decidedly anti-rail platforms. They were also involved in several very public disputes with the Obama administration’s Department of Transportation, which ultimately led to the president’s decision to redirect ARRA (stimulus) funds out of high-speed rail projects in Wisconsin and Ohio.

While I don’t discount the likelihood that a decent chunk of the recent Republican outrage over these projects is partisan and manufactured, some of it is certainly sincere. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently said, “There are no Democratic or Republic bridges, there are no Democratic or Republican roads.” He conveniently left out railroads, as the current high-speed rail program is largely the product of Democratic design (there is limited Republican support that primarily comes from Big Porkers like Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois).

There is plenty of sanctimony over on the blog, with PIRGy types nearly in tears over the thought of losing passenger rail projects that will primarily cater to wealthy urbanites. There are also plenty of bogus claims from rent-seekers and railfans. Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, is predictably full of it. He cites our alleged addiction to foreign oil as a reason to support the administration’s high-speed rail plan. He implies that these new trains of the future will somehow drastically diminish America’s demand for petroleum. Of course, putting faith in this narrative requires assuming that the trains will operate at capacity, that the proposed low-density corridors are actually meeting some unmet transportation demand, and ignoring the fact that these trains would be driven by diesel power cars or locomotives. Even then, it is unclear if U.S. petroleum demand would be significantly impacted. The Independent Institute’s Gabriel Roth smacks down Kunz over his logic-impaired assessment:

There is much misinformation on the capacity of transport modes. Andy Kunz asserts that “a single high speed rail line can carry the equivalent of a 10-lane freeway”. But one freeway lane can carry over 1,800 fifty-seat buses an hour. Six hundred such buses could carry 30,000 seated passengers an hour while occupying only one third of the capacity of one lane. How many seated passengers an hour can be carried on a High-Speed rail line, which requires each train to travel on dedicated right-of-way with miles of empty space in front of it?

As I said, I don’t doubt that there is some partisan cynicism at play in these recent dust-ups over Obamarail. But it is starting to appear that politicians and the public are simply more educated about these “high-speed” trains to nowhere, and are making their voices heard.