High-Speed Rail Critics Question President Obama's $53 Billion Plan

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Did Will Rogers get it wrong?

The humorist once quipped that America would be the first nation to go to the poor house in an automobile. No, say critics of high-speed rail, we'll be going there on a very fast train instead -- at least if the Obama administration has its way.

Earlier this week, Vice President Joe Biden announced that the administration, in the budget it submits to Congress Feb. 14, will seek $53 billion to build a European-style high-speed rail network.

In the first year of a six-year program, $8 billion would go to create or upgrade rail corridors of three types. Together, they would constitute the backbone of the new system:

"Emerging" corridors would carry passenger trains traveling at up to 90 mph.

"Regional" corridors would handle trains going from 90 mph to 125 mph.

And -- hold onto your striped engineer's hat -- "core express" corridors would offer trains racing along at up to 250 mph or faster, equal to Europe's best.

Infrastructure advocates applauded the announcement, calling it, variously, "an enormous step forward" (Petra Todorovich, director, America 2050) and "a commitment to building a better future for everyone" (William Millar, president, American Public Transportation Association).

John Robert Smith, CEO of Reconnecting America, said it was an important step toward realizing the president's vision -- first articulated in his State of the Union Address -- of connecting 80 percent of American households to high-speed rail within 25 years.

Rep. Bill Schuster, R-Pa., called it something else: "Insanity."

Schuster, chairman of the House Railroads Subcommittee, said spending money on high-speed rail makes sense only where population density justifies it -- such as along, say, the Northeast corridor between Washington, D.C. and Montreal.

He and other critics question whether any of the other venues envisioned by the administration could be economically sound.

Ken Button, director of the Center for Transportation Policy at George Mason University, thinks only two high speed corridors In the world recover their costs -- Tokyo-to-Osaka in Japan, and Paris-to-Lyon in France.

Wendell Cox, head of Demographia, a region-based public policy firm based in St. Louis, is even more skeptical.

France's system, he said, appears financially sound only because, under French accounting, government subsidies to it are treated as commercial revenue.

Japan's system, he said, shows a profit only because $250 billion of its debt was written off.

"Profits from high-speed rail?" Cox said. "Don't believe it for a minute."

Though "public-private partnerships" have been touted as a means for financing high-speed rail in the U.S., Cox contended that, "Every private dollar ever invested in high-speed rail has been lost."

How, then, did today's systems come to exist?

"One has to remember that much of what happens in politics has nothing to do with the public good," he said.

Companies that stood to benefit from high-speed rail lobbied hard for it, including equipment makers and financial service providers who financed the deals and made money off the debt.

Cox and fellow analyst Joseph Vranich wrote a 2008 study that examined the economics of California's proposed high-speed system, which, when finished, would link Sacramento with San Diego and with cities in between. In 2008, the estimated cost was $33 billion. Now, as of a few days ago, said CARRD (Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design), that figure has climbed, by their estimate, to at $65 billion.

At a time when state and federal finances are precarious, ask critics, how can such expenditures be justified -- especially when the U.S. has an already-paid-for transportation infrastructure that gets most travelers anywhere they want, domestically, in a single day?

Part of what makes high-speed rail costly to build, said Leslie McCarthy of the College of Engineering at Villanova University, is the need to secure new right of ways: The twists, turns and tacks of old rail beds may not support the demands of trains far faster than the ones for which they originally were designed.

Florida's proposed high-speed corridor already has a right of way, giving it a huge leg up.

Eugene "Gene" Skoropowski, director of rail and transit services for HNTB Corporation, which has management of the project, said Florida is in the best position of any state to implement a European-style system.

"Thirty percent of the engineering has been done," he said. "The cost estimates have been done. We believe we have all the necessary capital."

Construction on the first segment, linking Tampa and Orlando with trains traveling at close to 200 mph, could start as early as the first quarter of next year.

Skoropowski has little use for high-speed rail's critics.

The Erie Canal, the interstate highway system, and the nation's air travel infrastructure -- they were expensive, too, he said.

Conservatives, he added, are always calling for consumers to have more options and more choice. Services like Florida's, he said, will provide "a new travel choice to a big chunk of our population."

For system-builders less fortunate than Florida's, new technology may obviate the need to buy new right of ways.

Richard Guest, COO of Fastransit in New York City, said his company has demonstrated a variation of maglev (magnetic levitation) that allows a train to travel at high speeds on existing rail beds.