What’s With Obama and His Obsession With Trains?

In 2000, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment (the “Monorail Initiative“) authorizing the creation of a high-speed intercity rail network. However, as the economy slowed down shortly thereafter, expected tax revenue never materialized, and further analysis painted a less-than-rosy picture of the long-term prospects for high-speed inter-modal rail, nearly two-thirds of voters opted to repeal the amendment’s pro-rail language only a few years later.

Enter President Obama, a guy who seems to have a “thing for trains.” Not only did he stuff $8 billion worth of high-speed rail subsidies into his stimulus package, he selected Florida to be his political guinea pig. Of that $8 billion, $1.25 billion went to the 84-mile I-4 corridor running from Tampa to Orlando International Airport (yes, the “Orlando terminus” is actually 10 miles outside of Orlando city-proper). State transportation planners estimate that the line will take at least $3 billion to complete, but this is incredibly optimistic.

While state officials apparently believe that “market for intercity rail is projected to expand significantly,” the estimated costs are startling. Cato’s Randal O’Toole produced this excellent paper on the state of high-speed passenger rail in the United States, and calculated the cost per annual passenger mile for the Tampa-Orlando I-4 project to be at $5.40. To put this in perspective, he calculated the capital investment per APM for rural Midwest freeway lanes to be at $0.68. While it certainly costs more per APM to maintain the I-4 highway corridor, it is not eight times more expensive. But why the passenger rail push? So we can mimic the wasteful rail systems of Europe and Asia that are losing more and more of their market shares to cars as people become wealthier? Well, yes; ”national greatness” transportation policy is apparently key to Obama’s imagined future.

As I’ve written before, there are plenty of cheaper, superior alternatives to government-subsidized passenger rail in the U.S.:

—Stop allowing Amtrak and regional government-provided passenger rail to engage in predatory pricing against intercity bus operators. The private intercity bus market has been growing steadily across America–and with dramatically improved service thanks to new competition from operators like Megabus–but government rail has been allowed to sell fares at a loss for as long as it’s been in existence. Congress, state legislatures, and regional transit boards should stop subsidizing these wasteful projects immediately.

—Amtrak’s more profitable lines could be easily privatized, and the rest (e.g., cross-country service) could be turned over to the states who could then decide whether or not to keep these inefficient, unpopular networks afloat.

—Regional and urban transit authorities could work to get highway financing right through the creation of turnpikes managed through public-private partnerships, preferably with a divestiture component whereby the private firm would eventually own some or all of the infrastructure.

—Once tolled, highways could introduce congestion pricing to alleviate traffic jams.

—The air traffic control system should be privatized as rapidly as possible. Airline and airport stakeholders could then decide how to best upgrade the system in order to accommodate the air travel of the future. If Canada can do it, why can’t America, Mr. Obama?