Share

Policy: Economy

A high-speed train wreck for Obama and liberalism

By |
Opinion,Philip Klein,Columnists,California,Big Government,Economy,Budgets and Deficits,Liberalism,Railroads

Few of President Obama's initiatives are more emblematic of his early ambitions to be a transformational liberal leader than his vision for connecting the nation with a vast high-speed rail network.

The dream of building a system of bullet trains in the United States akin to what exists in Europe involves massive and sustained government spending, more money for unions, and promises to move the nation away from car-based transportation. Thus, it represents everything that excites American liberals.

Obama’s February 2009 economic stimulus package committed $8 billion to 79 projects spanning 31 states that were to lay the groundwork for “13 new, large-scale high-speed rail corridors across the country.”

In his 2011 State of the Union address, Obama touted high-speed rail as a central part of his plan for “winning the future.”

“Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail," Obama boasted. "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. As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already under way.”

As Americans’ assessment of Obama’s job performance turns increasingly negative, however, that vision is in shambles. And even the liberal New York Times is catching on.

In an article that appeared on the front page of the Times’ Thursday print edition, Ron Nixon wrote that “despite the administration spending nearly $11 billion since 2009 to develop faster passenger trains, the projects have gone mostly nowhere.”

Nixon noted that “Instead of putting the $11 billion directly into [high-speed rail] projects, critics say, the administration made the mistake of parceling out the money to upgrade existing Amtrak service, which will allow trains to go no faster than 110 miles per hour.”

Liberals often argue that America is well behind Europe when it comes to train travel, but having a vast rail system in the United States makes a lot less sense. Europe is much more densely populated and its major cities aren’t as spread out. Somebody who takes a train from Barcelona and Paris can easily get around once in Paris without a car – but that isn’t the case in Los Angeles.

When Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida were taken over by Republican governors during the 2010 wave election, they smartly declined the federal money – recognizing that the short-term injection of funds would impose massive long-term costs and obligations on the states.

The only place where high-speed rail would theoretically make sense is the Northeast Corridor that runs from Boston to Washington, D.C., but it would also be a prohibitively expensive project.

That has left California as the one place that has committed the most to the high-speed rail project.

In November 2008, Californians approved a ballot measure allowing the state to authorize up to $9.95 billion in bonds to finance high-speed rail. The bonds can only be issued if other sources match at least 50 percent of any bond issue.

The Obama administration quickly granted California $3.5 billion for high-speed rail. But since the ballot measure was approved, cost projections have exploded, the project has been tied up in lawsuits, and the completion date for the major phase of the project has been pushed back 14 years, to 2034. It’s now expected to cost $68 billion, and there is no clear plan to raise the rest of the money now that federal funding has dried up.

To make matters worse, the project that was supposed to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco isn't starting in major population centers. Instead, the first 130-mile stretch will be connecting Madera to Bakersfield.

With the public souring on the project, even Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a one-time ardent supporter of the project, has changed his mind.

"I would take the dollars and redirect it to other, more pressing infrastructure needs, and I am not the only Democrat that feels this way. And I've got to tell you, I am one of the few that just said it publicly," Newsom said during a February appearance on the "Ben Shapiro Show."

The high-speed rail program was one of the ways in which Obama sought to show that government is capable of doing big things, but thus far he has proved just the opposite.

View article comments Leave a comment

More from washingtonexaminer.com