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Not High Speed Nor Smart Nor Very Stimulating Rail

Dennis Byrne 29 January 2010 One Comment

Just as polls show that Americans are increasingly worried about government living beyond its means, President Barack Obama goes and announces he’s shoveling out another $8 billion for high-speed rail that is neither high-speed nor smart.

Blood-sucking politicians from Illinois wanted $4.5 billion of that, but had to settle for only $1.23 billion, for a ridiculous plan to shuttle a few hundred passengers each day between Chicago and St. Louis, at only 30 m.p.h. faster than now.

Oh yes, starry-eyed train fans will point out that eventually the trains will reach speeds of those bullet trains in Japan and Europe, but not for years and not without tons more billions.

Mind you, this money is coming from last year’s controversial stimulus package, which you’ll recall was meant to jump-start America out of the recession. No way the money can be spent quickly enough to meet that definition, but never mind, we’re going to spend it anyone.

This, friends, is an example of earmarks run amuck. Everyone condemns those packages of favors for special interests that are snuck into bills without anyone’s knowledge or public vetting. The only difference is that Obama is trying to turn this goofiness to his advantage with self-glorifying public pronouncements of how wonderful it all is. Still, when was the public congressional debate over this extravagance? Was it contained in an authorization bill? I doubt it; Congress gave the executive branch a free hand in deciding how to spend the money. How does that conform to the fundamental idea of separation of powers?

For if you want to see stupid, check out what the $1.23 billion ultimately will get, according to the Chicago Tribune:

o $1.1 billion to construct tracks, install signals, build stations and buy some locomotives and passenger coaches for 110 mph service between Alton, Ill., near St. Louis, to Dwight, Ill.
o $133 million to build the Englewood flyover bridge near 63rd Street in Chicago. The flyover is intended to reduce delays by separating Metra Rock Island commuter trains from Amtrak and freight trains on one of the most congested rail junctions in the U.S.
o $1.25 million to conduct an environmental impact study on a proposal to build a second set of tracks between Chicago and St. Louis to accommodate 110 mph trains.

For me, the flyover bridge is the only cost-effective idea in the bunch. Cost-effective? What the hell does that matter when you can’t be allowed to waste a recession to cash in on a dreamy idea that will never pay for itself? Remember, these billions are only the capital expense. What happens when the trains fail to generate enough passenger revenues to break even? There will be federal operating subsidies required as far as the eye can see, and the next generation will be left to wonder how the federal budget got so out of hand.
Not to pick on Illinois, the plans for the other states are equally loopy. Wisconsin is in line for $823 million for a Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison “high-speed” line. I can catch a bus that will whisk me between Milwaukee and Madison in an hour and 45 minutes; the high-speed rail will get me there—what?—20 minutes sooner? Of course I’ll be told that the route is just one segment of a line that would get me to Minneapolis in true high-speed time.

But, at what cost? I’m no fan of the airlines, but they offer more flexible schedules, and I’d be willing to bet when you include the cost of subsidizing high-speed rail construction and operation, more cost effective too.

But why should anything so rational count when your mind is made up that we’ve got to ape Europe and Japan—whose high-speed rail system operates, incidentally, a lot more economically because those countries are more densely populated? The only thing denser is Obama’s giveaway.

Dennis Byrne is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer

image Illinois Central’s Green Diamond cruised at over 100MPH in 1936.

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