Friday, February 11, 2011

Ron Utt's paper: Time to End Obama’s Costly High-Speed Rail Program

The whole paper is 4,500 words long:  Time to End Obama’s Costly High-Speed Rail Program

Re-printed below is an excerpt from that paperIt was written by Ron Utt, a Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.  Yes, I know, they have a political persuasion that may not agree with yours (or mine).  But, that's OK.  The issue here isn't political ideology.  It's whether the Obama high-speed rail program should go forward or not.

Thanks, Ken Orski, for bringing this to our attention.

The excerpt below focuses on only one issue, the flawed and highly superficial rationale offered by promoters like Ray LaHood to justify the vast expenditures this will require.  However, we need to add the following commentary in support of Ron Utt's basic contention, that the HSR program should be terminated.

First of all, there is no rationale for this high-speed rail program because there is no context.  What is the HSR program a part of?  What is the US Master Plan for moving people and goods in the future?  Is it not possible that high-speed rail is exactly what we don't need, but that we do need something entirely different?  We don't know the answer to that question because pursuit of a national transportation strategy has never preceeded the decision to launch high-speed rail and doesn't exist now. The high-speed rail program in the US exists in an intellectual vacuum.

But, even more important, there is a basic, unadvertised reality underlying this National HSR Program. And that is the transfer of massive federal funds to the states.

That is why the Democrats, to a man, support this project and the Republicans resist it.  It goes without saying that whether the funds are "free" from the US Treasury, or bond-based, as in California, they are ultimately our tax dollars.

California and this Nation have already borrowed themselves into near bankruptcy.  This project would contribute significantly to that with almost no benefits to anyone except those directly involved in its development. The California High-Speed Rail Authority has over 600 consultants in its employ.  They're doing OK. 

The Democratic agenda, if you scratch beneath the high-speed rail surface, is a selective state bailout in the name of unemployment mitigation and state deficit recovery.  It's not enough money, but it's better than nothing, goes the rationale.  The shorthand term for this is "pork."  The project itself, good or bad, is irrelevant.  It's merely a "vehicle," pun intended.

Those who ask if this project will ever be completed and operating, need to know that this is irrelevant.  It doesn't have to be finished; it doesn't have to operate.  What has to happen is the securing of as many dollars as possible and spending them.  As someone said, they could also just dig holes and fill them up again.

That's why Democrats already know, but don't care about the many shortcomings of the individual programs and the highly distorted promotional language in which their agendas are packaged.

What am I saying?  That the high-speed rail program, both nationally, and in California, is a lie.  It is not the truth.  It is really not about the train; it's about the money.

Don't believe me?  The Appellate Court in Sacramento found the language of Proposition 1A, the bond ballot for the 2008 elections, entirely too biased in favor of the rail; it was marketing and promotional sales rhetoric. In short, the voters were lied to.

That's why, whether it comes from the Department of Transportation or from the various transportation agencies in the states about to receive federal funding, the advocacy language is inevitably vague, often strange, and always untrue, as here, quoting Ray LaHood.  Ron Utt makes that point convincingly.

Time to End Obama’s Costly High-Speed Rail Program
by Ronald Utt, The Heritage Foundation  
February 11, 2011

Abstract: President Barack Obama’s high-speed rail program promises to spend
hundreds of billions of dollars in federal and state funds to provide mediocre
passenger rail service to an extremely small fraction of travelers. In this time
of tight budgets, neither the federal government nor the states can afford such
extravagance. Instead of creating a heavily subsidized, underutilized passenger
rail system, Congress and the Administration should promptly end the program and
use the recovered funds to reduce the federal budget deficit.

The Real Reason for High-Speed Rail or Any Rail

With all of the evidence indicating that HSR is an exceptionally costly and
inefficient means of travel that only a few passengers choose to use, it is
difficult to explain the obsession of some, including the President and members
of his Cabinet, with this mode of travel. In part, this obsession seems to have
little to do with travel per se, but rather with the quality of the travel

Secretary LaHood apparently believes that this is an appropriate federal goal.
He has observed, “People like to ride trains.… You don’t build these trains to
travel faster, although sometimes you do,” and added that “people could read
books, work on their computers, eat and perform other tasks on trains that are
difficult or illegal to do while driving.”[25]

Secretary LaHood’s clumsy defense of the costly inefficiency of rail travel was
expressed more elegantly, spiritually, and nonsensically by the late British
historian Tony Judt:

  If we lose the railways we shall not just have lost a valuable practical asset
  whose replacement or recovery would be intolerably expensive. We shall have
  acknowledged that we have forgotten how to live collectively. If we throw away
  the railway stations and the lines leading to them—as we began to do in the
  1950s and 1960s—we shall be throwing away our memory of how to live the
  confident civic life.… If we cannot spend our collective resources on trains
  and travel contentedly in them it is not because we have joined gated
  communities and need nothing but private cars to move between them. It will be
  because we have become gated individuals who don’t know how to share public
  space to common advantage. The implications of such a loss would far transcend
  the demise of one system of transport among others. It would mean we had done
  with modern life.[26]

This, apparently, is a rationale for spending billions of dollars on a travel
mode that few people will ride. On the one hand, passenger rail allows people to
eat and to play with their computers, but on the other hand, it allows them to
share public space to common advantage, retrieve the memory of living the
confident civic life, and remember how to live collectively.

While intriguing, exotic, and potentially therapeutic to some lonely souls,
retrieving a memory of living the confident civic life does not seem worth the
several hundred billion dollars the plan would cost. Congress and the President
could do well by identifying higher priorities that better merit federal

[25]Ray LaHood, quoted in Nash, “Official: Trains Are the Ticket.”
[26]Tony Judt, “Bring Back the Rails!” The New York Review of Books, January 13,
(February 7, 2011).

Forwarded by:
C. Kenneth Orski (
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