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High-Speed Rail: Feeding Trough Today, Potential Trainwreck Tomorrow

Finally, there's a date. Federal stimulus cash for rail in the United States will begin flowing in the beginning of 2010, and not just spare change. The total amount to be disbursed currently stands at $8 billion, and another $4 billion or more is in the works.

But the impending date has apparently produced a deluge of lobbyists, who are now flooding Washington with requests for various projects. Taken together, the proposed projects total $57 billion, which reveals the reality of rail: A few billion dollars may be chump change, after all.

New funding for rail also has a troubling tendency to disappear into the void. The Center for Public Integrity just published a long account of the challenges awaiting rail. A snippet:

"Whatever money was available wound up going into these feasibility studies or analyses of routes," says Tim Gillespie, a rail consultant and former congressional aide who lobbies on behalf of French companies Alstom and Veolia...

A sobering Government Accountability Office report this past spring has served as the conscience of the debate. It identified more than $1 billion already spent by governments at various levels on just 11 high speed rail proposals currently in the environmental review phase. Some of that money went to upgrade rail crossings or improve track along existing lines. But none of it resulted in any high-speed rail.

If you wanted to boil all the issues down to one source, you'd probably come up with the existing development in the United States. On the one hand, our cities are fully built out, necessitating the destruction and modification of existing neighborhoods to make way for new rail lines.

If the locals in any one area don't feel cooperative, they can tie up a massive rail project with their objections; that's happening right now in Palo Alto, Calif., which is along the proposed route for a San Francisco to Los Angeles line.

On the other hand, there's a lot of existing railroad, which is always in need of maintenance and minor upgrades. Completing these can suck up massive amounts of funding, leaving nothing for the kind of mega-project required to build a new interstate rail line.

Besides this problem of existing infrastructure, there are a handful of others:

  • Long waits for studies and planning can disappoint the public and suck the momentum away from rail
  • New lines that get funded may never attract enough riders to break even, requiring ongoing financial support
  • Trains in less densely populated areas may not provide promised environmental benefits over cars or planes
The conclusion? We should by no means abandon the idea of rail, but we shouldn't gloss it over, either. It'll be tough, at best. New rail lines are the kind of infrastructure investment countries need to continue growing, but the potential for self-interested politicians, lobbyists or private citizens to derail the process means we should only enter with our eyes wide open.
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