08 February 2011

TRAIN-ing Wheeling and Dealing

During a speech at Philadelphia’s 30th  Street Station, Vice President Joe Biden announced that the Obama Administration plans to spend $53 Billion over the next six years to upgrade and expand inter-city rail networks.  The Transportation Administration hopes that 80% of all Americans will have access to rail travel within 25 years.  These proposals keep Biden’s campaign promise that this would be the most train friendly administration ever.

The Porkulus legislation earmarked $8 billion in seed money to play with passenger trains and the FY 2010 budget included another $2.5 billion to railroad development.  But only $3.5 billion is going towards true high speed rail projects.  Instead The bulk of these funds have been directed to railroad projects in Central Florida and in California in order to have a ribbon cutting early in President Obama’s prospective second term.

Biden’s experience of taking over 7,900 round trips commuting on Amtrak between Capitol Hill and his home in Wilmington, Delaware apparently makes him an expert on railroads. Even though taxpayers take an estimated $50 loss on each Amtrak ticket sold, I doubt that many Americans who can not expense their quotidian commute to their Senatorial office can afford the $195 round trip on Acela or the $90 for the regional passenger service.

Either it is extraordinary forward vision or tunnel vision to keep touting the Supertrain. Amtrak only currently serves 78,000 passengers daily and has cost American taxpayers $35 billion since the government takeover in 1971.

The Orlando to Tampa leg of the Florida High Speed Rail System might be capable of traveling at 168 miles per hour.  But due to the number of stops along the 84 mile route, the “Supertrain” would only beat a car trip on a congested I-4 by a half an hour. This innovation comes at an estimated cost of $2.7 billion, but such government run infrastructure projects inevitably have severe cost overruns.  In two years, the cost estimates for California’s Bullet Trains have risen by a third to $43 billion.  For the High Speed Rail System which the Obama Department of Transportation envisions, it would cost $100 billion.  For true high speed trains, CNN estimates the cost of the system at $500 billion in 2009 dollars.

Train enthusiasts insist that investing in passenger rail improvements will alleviate road congestions.  Reason TV rightly points out that intercity passenger rail does nothing to alleviate rush hour traffic jams. And many of those metropolitan areas already have commuter rail services.  Based on overseas examples, these high speed rail projects are a money pit as only two bullet train projects have ever re-cooperated their infrastructure costs.

Naive observers may wonder why the Obama Administration seems almost as obsessed on trains as the Simpson’s Springfield was smitten with Monorails?  I believe that there is a sincere impetus to improve our nation’s intermodal infrastructure with a bias that a bigger government can do a better job.  But there is certainly some TRAIN-ing (sic) wheeling and dealing.  First off, to quote our National Treasure Joe Biden “[A]s Barack says, a three-letter word: jobs. J-O-B-S, jobs.”  Union jobs in particular. When these projects receive such massive federal funding, they will be obliged to follow federal rules, which have a strong bias towards hiring union workers.  After the ribbon cutting, who will need to staff the rails? Union workers of course.  Once the systems are operational, they will continue to require massive government subsidies. And unless we risk being paralyzed by a intercity rail strike, it is necessary to appease the rail unions.

There is the notion of political payoff.  When newly elected Governors John Kasich (R-OH) and Scott Walker(R-WI) decided to opt for a political train derailment of this high speed rail folly, the Obama Administration withdrew those allocated transportation funds with prejudice. When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) opted not to proceed with the $9 billion Hudson train tunnel to Macy’s, the Federal government sued to get the planning seed money back.  Is it any coincidence that whenever Republican Governors try to derail the Obama Administration's obsession with trains on behalf of their constituents that these red states are figuratively thrown from the train and they lose the intermodal transportation funds that they richly deserve?

I fully appreciate House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL 7th) cynicism regarding the latest push to spend lots of money on a train folly.  Mica asserted that the Federal Railway Administration should not be giving grants or selecting projects.  Moreover, Mica recognized that Amtrak highjacked 72 of 78 projects, that were mostly costly and many had already been rejected by state agencies.  Mica inveighed that “Amtrak's Soviet-style train system is not the way to provide modern and efficient passenger rail service."  To make a point, Mica analogized this rail proposal as: “This is like giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio.”

Notwithstanding this skepticism of the merits of improving the intercity passenger rail system in intermodal transporation, the expensive earmark makes a mockery of President Obama’s State of the Union show, where he promised that there would be a five year across the board freeze on federal spending.

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