High Speed Rail: The Dream Scheme Scenario

Cross-posted at NewGeography.

Ever since Jay Gould, Leland Stanford, and Cornelius Vanderbilt acquired their first legislatures, railroads have been best understood as political networks, rather than as transportation lines. The Obama administration is hyping high-speed rail (HSR) with a $53 billion proposal not because the president is a trainspotter or because he collects back copies of the Official Guide of the Railways (like I do). Rather, it’s because politicians understand that the states blew their money on generous pension plans, pretentious sports stadiums, and bridges to nowhere, and now need billions to plug their budget deficits. It’s easier to funnel money into tapped–out state capitals under the smoke and mirrors of a feel-good rail project than it is to announce that the federal government stands behind states’ subprime debts. The Government Accounting Office estimates unfunded state liabilities at $405 billion, which is probably what HSR would, in the end, cost. Think of it as the Stimulus Express.

The high-speed scheme is a dream of superfast trains, traveling at 150 m.p.h., linking Portland, Maine, and Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago with St. Louis and Kansas City; the Orlando corridor in Florida (which the governor there has rejected); and express trains in Texas and California. Another way to look at the proposed HSR network is to imagine it connecting the cities and states that Obama needs to carry if he is to have a chance of winning the 2012 election.

High Speed Rail: Fast Track To Nowhere

Cross-posted at NewGeography.com

Given that Warren Buffett ponied up $44 billion in cash and stock to
take private the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, I wonder why
President Obama is betting that the way to lift the country out of
stagnant growth is to invest another $50 billion, in public funds, to
swing aboard the dream of high-speed intercity rail.

According to the administration, new money needs to be allocated to
such high-speed rail (HSR) projects as those between San Diego and
Sacramento, Orlando and Tampa, and – my personal boondoggle favorite –
the DesertXpress between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, a $4 billion bet
that getting high-rollers to the blackjack tables will lift the U.S.
economy out of its doldrums.

To establish some track cred, I spend much of my life dreaming about
trains, consulting timetables on how to catch them, and plotting trips
that might end up on night trains to Butterworth (the station for
Penang) or Iasi (change in Ungheni, on the Moldovan border).