Obama Pumps More Money into “High-Speed Rail” Boondoggles

The Department of Transportation announced today that another $2.4 billion is being doled out to high-speed rail projects around the country. This is on top of the $8 billion these projects received from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, aka “the stimulus package”). These are the first dollars being spent on the proposed $600 billion 17,000-mile high-speed rail network (yes, that works out to $35.3 million per mile of track).

In addition to the wasteful spending, another galling aspect of these projects is that most do not even meet the requirements of the common definitions of “high-speed rail.” The European Union, for example, defines high-speed rail on upgraded track to be those lines where vehicles can travel in excess of 120 miles per hour, with a 160-mile-per-hour minimum for vehicles traveling on new track. Of the nine regions/corridors receiving funding, only two meet these criteria. (The DOT’s own definition is 110 mph, which most of the proposed projects conveniently claim as their eventual maximum speed.)

See the table below (compiled from DOT’s HSIPR Program project summaries):

Project Region/Corridor Funding True HSR?
California Corridors $901,574,000 Yes
Tampa-Orlando-Miami $808,000,000 Yes
Omaha-Iowa City-Chicago $230,000,000 No
Northeast Region $198,000,000 No
Pontiac-Detroit-Chicago $161,000,000 No
Charlotte-Raleigh-Richmond-Washington, D.C. $68,000,000 No
Minneapolis/St. Paul-Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago $43,700,000 No
Eugene-Portland-Seattle-Vancouver $38,719,000 No
Kansas City-St. Louis-Chicago $4,000,000 No


The takeaway message here is that more than 30 percent of funds were allocated to “high-speed” rail projects that in reality are not even considered “high-speed” by international standards. (USA! USA!)

Earlier this month, Cato’s Randal “The Antiplanner” O’Toole wrote an article published in USA Today that threw cold water on some of the bigger, more obnoxious lies and half-truths being peddled by high-speed rail backers:

At an inflation-adjusted cost of about $450 billion paid out of highway user fees, the Interstate Highway System, to which high-speed rail is sometimes compared, provides more than 4,000 miles of passenger travel for every American, miles that Americans were not traveling before the system was built. By comparison, a $600 billion expenditure on high-speed rail will provide, at best, around 300 miles of travel per person.

More to the point, most of that travel will not be new travel, but merely a substitute for driving, flying, or other existing forms of travel. The California High-Speed Rail Authority predicts that 98% of its customers will shift from driving or flying. Florida predicts that 96% of the people using its high-speed train will switch from driving.

Almost no new travel means almost no transformative effect. Few people will use high-speed rail or urban rail transit to access new markets, resources, or jobs. Merely substituting rail for other modes will be extremely expensive.

Amtrak brags that its high-speed Acela between Boston and Washington covers its operating costs, though not its capital costs. It does so, however, only by collecting fares of about 75 cents per passenger mile. By comparison, airline fares average only 13 cents a passenger mile, and intercity buses (which, Amtrak doesn’t want you to know, carry about three times as many passengers between Boston and Washington as the Acela) are even less expensive.

Furthermore, given that only 8 percent of American workers are employed in central city downtowns, the likely beneficiaries will be wealthy, white-collar workers.