The Bullet-Train Misfire

Prospects for a high-speed national rail network are dimming. There are good reasons why.
by , | December 13, 2011 AT 11:00 AM

A recent poll in California brought bad news for high-speed-rail supporters. Three years after about 53 percent of the state's voters approved a $9.9 billion bond package for California's high-speed-rail project, 64 percent of those polled said they support a re-vote, and 59 percent say they would vote no if they had the chance.

Opponents now include a plurality of Democrats and a majority of both Republicans and independents. Even 37 percent of those who supported the 2008 package say they've changed their minds.

All of this is a blow for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which is seeking legislative approval to start construction next year.

There are a number of reasons for the shift. First and foremost, any spending proposal is naturally subject to increased scrutiny after years of massive state budget shortfalls.

The projected cost of bringing high-speed rail to California also has nearly doubled, to almost $100 billion, since the 2008 referendum. And the project timetable has changed dramatically. In 2008, voters were presented with a plan to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco by 2020. It's currently estimated that the project would be completed in 2033.

When projected costs double and timetables get pushed out more than a decade, taxpayers can't help but think about our national point of reference when it comes to inter-city rail: Amtrak.

Despite carrying just one-tenth of 1 percent of America's travelers, Amtrak is a veritable budgetary black hole. In 2010, the company lost $560 million on top of its $1.6 billion federal appropriation.

Part of the reason for the massive losses is congressional insistence that Amtrak maintain long-distance routes through sparsely populated areas. Although those routes account for just 15 percent of ridership, they pile up 80 percent of the company's losses. One line alone, the Sunset Limited between New Orleans and Los Angeles, loses an astonishing $462 per passenger.

Advocates for a national rail network in the United States invariably point to the extensive rail systems in Europe and Japan. But Europe and Japan don't have vast, lightly populated areas between densely populated coasts.

That doesn't mean there's no place for high-speed rail in the United States, but it does mean--particularly in an environment of severely limited resources--that we must be smart about how we invest.

Unless engineers can develop service that's far faster than currently envisioned, high-speed rail should be limited to routes of 300 miles or less. After that, it ceases to be competitive with air travel. Such corridors as Los Angeles-San Francisco, Chicago-Milwaukee and the existing Northeast Corridor must be the focus; the long-distance routes have to go.

Amtrak could also serve as a case study on the dangers of granting a monopoly. Government's place in high-speed rail is to build and maintain the necessary infrastructure. Let potential providers compete to operate the service.

It's not easy to sell a major infrastructure investment in the fourth year of a bad economy. If California and other states want to reap the potential economic and environmental benefits of high-speed rail, there's very little margin for error.