Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


High-Speed Heaven or Boondoggle Express

• February 08, 2011 • 5:25 PM

The Obama administration has come through with some serious money for high-speed rail, but arguments that this might be money ill spent don’t spring solely from political nay-saying.

“Rail fans like to point out that Abraham Lincoln got roughly $7 billion — in current dollars — approved for the first transcontinental railroad during the Civil War. But in a time of crippling state and federal deficits, does America have the political will to spend perhaps a trillion dollars over 20 years on trains?”

So asked Bruce Selcraig, writing in the September-October issue of Miller-McCune magazine.

At the time he wrote his article, all of four months ago, the Obama administration had called for dropping $13 billion on high-speed rail projects across the country, with most of that money — after an unusual game of largesse avoidance — headed for Florida and California. On Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden announced another amount — $53 billion over the next six years.

Speaking at Philadelphia’s 30th Street train station, Biden said, “As a longtime Amtrak rider and advocate, I understand the need to invest in a modern rail system that will help connect communities, reduce congestion and create quality, skilled manufacturing jobs that cannot be outsourced. This plan will help us to do that while also increasing access to convenient high-speed rail for more Americans.”

Biden’s announcement wasn’t a bolt from the blue. In his State of the Union address two weeks ago, President Obama cited the advances Europe and Asia have made in high-speed rail while arguing “we have to do better. America is the nation that built the transcontinental railroad, brought electricity to rural communities, constructed the Interstate Highway System.”

[class name=”dont_print_this”]

By the Way

BY THE WAY
When news breaks, this blog shows that Miller-McCune has the topic covered.

[/class] He added a moment later, “Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail. This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying — without the pat-down.”

The plan Biden announced calls for $8 billion to leave the depot in next year’s budget, the first car in the expenditure train. Not all would go to high-speed; half of the first year’s federal dollars would “revitalize” domestic rail manufacturing or boost intercity rail.

Opponents in the Republican Party have criticized the plans (after taking the obligatory swipe at Amtrak), arguing the cost is too much right now, and besides, private industry should take a lead if these projects should even leave the station at all. (It’s worth noting that the transcontinental plans of the nation’s first Republican president did rely on a public-private partnership.)

Talking to Miller-McCune in 2008, former Democratic presidential candidate and current rail booster Michael Dukakis was adamant that government must be involved. “There isn’t a single system in the world that operates on its own,” he observed.

That $8 billion figure has been bobbing around for a while — our Lewis Beale used that figure in his look at how stimulus spending might impact high-speed rail hopes. His article argued that once a high-speed rail system was operational, say along California’s north-south spine, other states would hop on board.


Also on Miller-McCune.com, how the idea of high speed rail died in Texas while thriving in Spain during the 1980s.


Some states, though, are opting to walk. In our October story, Selcraig suggested Florida’s rail plans were “widely considered the most shovel-ready high-speed rail project in the nation.” But the state’s new governor, Republican Rick Scott, is being coy about using federal rail money, a stance he debuted even before he took office.

“Rick Scott has no particular aversion to creating a high-speed rail system in Florida,” his spokesman told a reporter for the state’s New York Times-owned papers. “However, he does believe that before the state should commit to such a financial obligation, both the upfront capital and ongoing operating cost, that the investment must be justified by demonstrating a return on investment to the citizens whose tax money would be used to fund the system.”

While rail always remains attractive in a world with terrible traffic problems, decreasing fossil fuels and serious climate change, Scott’s stated concerns about a boondoggle (or that what begins with a federal handout becomes a state handcuff) aren’t without merit.

In a 2008 profile of “boondoggle-ologist” Bent Flyvbjerg and the perils of over-optimism, our Ryan Blitstein reported: “The vast majority of public works projects go drastically over budget and aren’t as well patronized as proponents claim. [Flyvbjerg] also found that modelers didn’t seem to be improving their estimates over time; the scale of overruns remained relatively constant. Rail and highway projects are often the worst boondoggles.”

Railway crossings come with warning signs for a reason.

 

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.