February 14 2011
All Aboard For More Government Waste!
Do you ever worry that your government isn't wasting your money fast enough?
Well, relax-here comes high-speed rail, which Robert Samuelson calls the "fast track to government waste" in his column this morning. Samuelson notes:
Vice President Biden, an avowed friend of good government, is giving it a bad name. With great fanfare, he went to Philadelphia last week to announce that the Obama administration proposes spending $53 billion over six years to construct a "national high-speed rail system." Translation: The administration would pay states $53 billion to build rail networks that would then lose money - lots - thereby aggravating the budget squeezes of the states or federal government, depending on which covered the deficits.
There's something wildly irresponsible about the national government undermining states' already poor long-term budget prospects by plying them with grants that provide short-term jobs. Worse, the rail proposal casts doubt on the administration's commitment to reducing huge budget deficits. The president's 2012 budget is due Monday. How can it subdue deficits if it keeps proposing big spending programs?
High-speed rail would definitely be big. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has estimated the administration's ultimate goal - bringing high-speed rail to 80 percent of the population - could cost $500 billion over 25 years. For this stupendous sum, there would be scant public benefits. Precisely the opposite. Rail subsidies would threaten funding for more pressing public needs: schools, police, defense.
I love trains (though I wish Amtrak would realize that it is a service industry and open the café car on the Washington-New York run before Baltimore-and, hey, how about not scowling at people who are desperate for coffee?). I'm always in a good mood when I am going on a trip that starts in Union Station, one of the most beautiful landmarks in the city. But, as noted in a Cato study quoted by Samuelson, Amtrak ain't cheap: The Acela to New York is $139, the (unsubsidized) bus runs about $21.
I once fell into an argument with a high-speed rail supporter on a trip back from Richmond, as I have recounted here before. His main argument seemed to be that Europe has high-rail. I honestly think he thought that high-speed rail would confer some sort of sophistication on riders. (Hey, buy a beret--it's cheaper.) High rail also has roots in the anti-car sentiments of the left-they hated the exuberant tail fins of the 1950s and now they hate the family-friendly SUV. But, as Samuelson points out, the yearning for high-speed rail ignores reality:
Governing ought to be about making wise choices. What's disheartening about the Obama administration's embrace of high-speed rail is that it ignores history, evidence and logic. The case against it is overwhelming. The case in favor rests on fashionable platitudes. High-speed rail is not an "investment in the future"; it's mostly a waste of money. Good government can't solve all our problems, but it can at least not make them worse.