NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


March 23, 2010

President Barack Obama has committed the United States to building at least 13 high-speed rail (HSR) lines, one of the most expensive forms of transportation that a nation could choose.  Even in a strong economy, building HSR makes little sense, offering minimal reductions in travel times at exorbitant costs, says Ronald D. Utt, a Senior Research Fellow with the Heritage Foundation.

In the current weak economy and with the government facing massive budget deficits, the country simply cannot afford to squander $8 billion in stimulus funding, $5 billion over the next five years, and billions of dollars in matching state funding on a transportation system that will at best serve a minute fraction of the traveling public.  The country would be better off either not spending the money or spending it on something productive, says Utt.

The Obama transportation team apparently thinks that shaving a few minutes here and a few minutes there from a handful of intercity trips will soften the pain of the Great Recession and propel the economy forward, says Utt: 

  • Achieving these modest goals will require a number of years, $8 billion in federal taxpayer money today, another $5 billion in federal money over the next five years, and an even greater sum from the unfortunate taxpayers of the states that are receiving these federal awards.
  • However extravagant this commitment to jazzed-up 19th century technology may be, the ultimate costs of bringing HSR to the 13 corridors already approved by the Federal Railroad Administration will be staggering.
  • California received a $2.3 billion grant toward an HSR system with an official cost of $50.2 billion (in 2006 dollars).
  • But independent analysts contend that it will more likely cost $81.4 billion.

The supposed benefits do not even begin to justify the exorbitant costs, says Utt.  The U.S. Department of Transportation's Inspector General estimates that reducing travel time between Washington, D.C., and New York City and between New York City and Boston by 30 minutes each will cost $14 billion while reducing auto ridership along the corridor by less than 1 percent.

Source: Ronald D. Utt, "America's Coming High-Speed Rail Financial," Heritage Foundation, March 19, 2010.

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