One of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s top priorities will be to make America the world leader in high-speed rail. It’s a familiar goal since his boss’ former boss, Barack Obama, also wanted to lead the world in high-speed rail.
It’s been the dream of urban planners, greens, and giant construction companies to build a massively expensive high-speed rail system that would unite the nation in a green utopia. How expensive? California’s current project is constructing a high-speed rail system from the Los Angeles basin to San Francisco that would make the trip in about 2 1/2 hours — if all goes according to plan and the trains can travel the 200 MPH between stops. That’s a big “if” and it’s uncertain if California voters will continue to approve the cost overruns.
It was originally pegged to cost $34 billion and be done by this year. The projected cost has risen to $80 billion and won’t be completed until 2029.
Now, Buttigieg wants to ignore the massive expense and construction problems experienced in California and try the same trick in building other high-speed rail lines, especially on the east coast where the most traveled rail lines are in operation.
Biden will need to invest far more to meet Buttigieg’s talk of leading the world. A plan from Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton to build a national high-speed rail network called for $205 billion over five years. (For context, the US spends roughly $50 billion a year on highways.)
Obama’s talk of faster trains wasn’t well-received in Republican-led states. Governors in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida turned down billions in federal funding, scuttling high-speed rail projects in those states.
Cost estimates for high-speed rail are silly. They bear no relationship whatsoever to reality. They are worse than wishful thinking because they are made to deceive, not enlighten. GOP governors know this and feared a white elephant in their states.
High-speed rail advocates believe the Biden administration is better positioned to succeed given what was learned at the Department of Transportation during the Obama years, when there was less experience in high-speed rail projects.
“A lot of people had to learn a lot of stuff really fast. They did the best they could,” Rick Harnish, executive director of the High Speed Rail Alliance told CNN Business.
LaHood thinks more US governors would be accepting of funding now, and estimates as many as half would take funding. He feels the biggest hurdle is if the Biden administration can get Congress to fund high-speed rail.
The politics of high-speed rail are as partisan as any other issue. Democratic governors see these projects as bold and futuristic. Republicans are frightened of the open-ended budgeting. Democrats know that no matter how over budget the projects get, they can always claim that so much has been spent already, we have to complete the project to make the expense worthwhile.
What makes the trillions of dollars Buttigieg wants to spend on high-speed rail so wasteful is that Americans don’t like to ride trains. No matter how luxurious or how fast they go, Americans have shown a decided preference for flying.
Perhaps a lot of that money that the government wants to spend on high-speed rail could be spent on upgrading and improving air travel. Many airports could use a facelift and the infrastructure that feeds airports was mostly built in the 1950s.
We have the airplanes already. They don’t have to be built. The traveling public has shown they prefer airplanes to trains. Why spend unknown trillions of dollars on massive construction projects that would have an unknown outcome?