"What we're talking about," President Obama once said, "is a vision for high-speed rail in America. Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city. No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes. Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination."
This was Obama's vision for high-speed rail in his stimulus package, toward which he devoted $8 billion. If it sounded too good to be true, it's because it was. Multiple studies and the experiences of other nations suggest that high-speed rail is a fiscal black hole. Its ridership and utility are almost always overestimated when projects are undertaken. High-speed rail lines are typically finished at costs well beyond projections, then require massive annual operating subsidies in perpetuity just to keep running.
Some Republican governors, such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Scott in Florida and John Kasich in Ohio, wisely canceled Obama's high-speed rail projects in their own states. They did so at the risk of appearing petty, because it meant turning down hundreds of millions or even billions in federal money. But California Gov. Jerry Brown has persisted, even though the price tag for his state's rail project has gradually risen from $33 billion to $100 billion. And in order to guarantee the project goes forward despite public skepticism, Brown proposed to exempt the project from environmental injunctions. Without this exemption, it will probably be impossible to start construction by the Dec. 31, 2012, deadline stipulated by the federal stimulus law. Obama's Transportation Department reaffirmed this time limit last year when it admitted it had "no administrative authority to change this deadline."
But the environmentalists' pressure finally got to Brown. The Los Angeles Times reported last week that he is backing down on the exemption. This all but guarantees that the project is dead. Federal courts routinely issue injunctions to stop projects before they ever begin, and the city of Chowchilla has already filed a lawsuit charging that the California High-Speed Rail Authority failed to conduct a proper Environmental Impact Statement pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act and the National Environmental Protection Act. Studies show that the average time to complete the NEPA process is 6.1 years.
Even if Chowchilla voluntarily dismisses its suit, there is no shortage of other challenges ready to go to court. Farmers have already sued to stop the project in state court, claiming that the Rail Authority's plan violates the wording of the state ballot measure that created it. If they lose, there is nothing stopping them, or other farmers, or an environmentalist group, or anyone else from later pursuing a NEPA or CEQA claim. It may never get that far, because the state legislature has only until July 1 to approve the funds necessary to begin this fool's errand.
Despite a lack of evidence that high-speed rail will reduce traffic congestion or bring any noticeable environmental benefits, this and other rail projects have been billed as "green." It will be poetic justice if the very laws established by the green lobby help to derail it and put an end to Obama's vision of high-speed rail.