Runaway Train: Obama’s Derailed High-Speed Dream

Central economic planning is among the most cherished elements of socialism. Ask any hard leftist with an advanced degree in economics, political science or even history, and he will give a long, passionate speech, voice trembling, eyes wet, about the endless virtues of central economic planning. Aside the obvious failures of the centrally planned countries within the Soviet sphere, as well as the notorious inability of Cuba and North Korea to feed its own population, anyone who wants to know what central planning is like can study examples of it here at home. Try mass transit, e.g., especially with focus on high-speed passenger trains. The latest chapter in that sordid story was recently chronicled by Brent Larkin, former editorial director at the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

A year ago, Gov.-elect John Kasich received a note in the mail from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. It arrived a few days after Kasich told the Obama administration he didn’t want $400 million in federal money to build a so-called high-speed rail system in Ohio. The note from Schwarzenegger, written on thick, gold-embossed stationery, thanked Kasich for his decision and promised the redirected money — most of which went to California for its rail project — would be put to good use. … In a letter to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, Schwarzenegger professed his “astonishment” that Kasich and other governors-elect didn’t want the rail money. Schwarzenegger should have saved California taxpayers the postage and tossed the letters in a drawer. It’s now abundantly clear Kasich’s decision was the right one. Across the country, high-speed rail projects are flying off the tracks, with states either pulling the plug on them or grappling with epic cost overruns.

It is not just high-speed trains that run amok, cost-wise. Mass transit projects are always open-ended commitments on behalf of taxpayers, something voters in the Atlanta region will soon find out the hard way.

And nowhere are those overruns worse than in California, where most of Ohio’s $400 million ended up. U.S. taxpayers have contributed $3.5 billion in federal stimulus to the initial, 178-mile leg of California’s 800-mile, high-speed rail project. And while not an inch of track has been laid, the cost overruns are already staggering. A state report issued last month estimated the cost of the project at $98 billion — nearly triple the original estimate of $33 billion. That’s more than $122 million a mile.

And that’s before they have even gotten started. Compare this to $20-$40 million per mile to build an interstate, which are documented costs from projects that have actually been completed. In other words, California could get 2,400 miles of congestion-easing, safe, fast and convenient interstate highways for the same money that, under the best possible conditions, might give them 800 miles of high-speed rail. And that’s before anyone has even started building the trains that are supposed to run on those tracks.

The completion date has been moved from 2020 to 2033. So gigantic are the overruns that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has held two hearings to examine how a project could go so wrong so soon. And three weeks ago, California’s legislative budget office said the overruns are now so great that it is “highly uncertain” the project will ever be built.

You know the cost overruns are bad when Congress – yes, the United States Congress , land of the free spending spree and home of the brave budget busters – finds it necessary to get involved.

With a couple of exceptions, newspaper editorial boards in the state have turned against the rail plan, as have some Democratic legislators who were once among its loudest cheerleaders. In November, a Washington Post editorial begged, “Somebody please stop this train.” There is now a move afoot to put the issue before California’s voters. If that happens, polls show it’s doomed. The California project is managed by the Parsons Brinckerhoff engineering firm. This is the same outfit the Strickland administration handed a $23 million no-bid contract to do planning and design work on the Ohio project that Kasich killed.

Talk about fast cash. You draw a few rail lines on a map, make a couple of nice-looking 3D images of high-speed trains on your computer and copy some scenes from TrainSimulator, and all of a sudden the government writes you a check for $23 million.

I’m obviously in the wrong business.

Ken Orski is a former administrator for the federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration who for more than 22 years has published what the National Journal describes as “an influential and widely read transportation newsletter.” Orski told me the plan advocated by former Gov. Ted Strickland gave high-speed rail a bad name. “The Ohio idea was really just marginal improvement in Amtrak service,” he said. “There has to be a place in the transportation spectrum for high-speed rail, but the Ohio project was one of the poster children for how not to do this.” That’s what happens to a state’s reputation when it proposes spending $563 million in taxes on a train system that would move passengers from Cleveland to Cincinnati at a slower speed than the New York Central took them in 1935.

Government at its best. And central economic planning taking you for a ride on the road to nowhere.

Doesn’t it comfort you enormously to know that the people who can’t even plan and execute a train system on time and budget are soon going to be in charge of your health care?