Wisconsin has become a battleground over the Obama administration’s plan to create a national system of high-speed rail. Of the $8 billion in HSR grants awarded to the states in the stimulus bill, $810 million of it went toward a high-speed route between Milwaukee and Madison.
Ironically, this Wisconsin “high-speed” route would only achieve speeds of 79 mph initially and 110 mph by 2016. As a Cato essay on high-speed rail points out, HSR aficionados don’t even consider 110 mph to be true high-speed. In fact, passenger trains were being run at speeds of 110 mph or more back in the 1930s. And those “high-speed” trains didn’t prevent the decline of passenger trains after World War II.
The Cato essay also notes that the 85-mile line between Milwaukee and Madison “is only a tiny portion of the eventual planned route from Chicago to Minneapolis, and no one knows who will pay the billions necessary to complete that route.” In fact, to build a national system of true high-speed rail on the 12,800 mile network envisioned by the administration, the cost could be close to $1 trillion.
Where would the money come from? State governments are hoping that it would be all from federal taxpayers. As I recently discussed, the states’ interest in grabbing new federal HSR money has dropped now that Congress is requiring a 20 percent state match:
The states already have dedicated revenue sources for federal highway aid matching requirements (also 20 percent). With state tax revenues flat due to the recession, where would the money come from to pay for high-speed rail projects? Proposing new taxes to fund high-speed rail would probably be political suicide. And most state policymakers recognize that shifting money away from more popular programs to pay for high-speed rail won’t be any more politically rewarding.
The issue is even affecting elections in states that are in line to receive federal funding for high-speed rail. Scott Walker, a Republican candidate for governor in Wisconsin, recently said he’d send back the $810 million in stimulus funds the state has received for a rail line between Madison and Milwaukee. Walker appears to understand that his state has more pressing infrastructure needs and that high-speed rail could become a fiscal black hole.
On Tuesday, Walker won the GOP primary to replace outgoing Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, who is an ardent supporter of the Milwaukee-Madison route. Walker’s Democratic opponent, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, supports the route’s construction. According to Stateline.org, the outgoing Doyle administration plans to have $300 million of the money under contract by January, which Walker says he would cancel if elected.
Wisconsin Democrats have made hay out of the fact that former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson first championed the idea of a regional network of high-speed rail. Unfortunately for HSR proponents, Thompson’s past involvement with federally-subsidized rail is a reason not to build the route.
From a Cato essay on Amtrak subsidies:
Amtrak reform legislation in 1997 stipulated that its board be replaced with a "reform board" of directors. The Clinton administration nominated, and the Senate confirmed, politicians that included the then-governor of Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson, and the mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, John Robert Smith. Mayor Smith tried to create a route that would have lost millions linking Atlanta and Dallas via Meridian. Governor Thompson succeeded in creating a route from Chicago to Janesville, Wisconsin. It was eventually discontinued after Thompson's departure from the board due to low ridership and financial losses.
As is the case with Amtrak, HSR can’t compete with more efficient modes of transportation like automobiles and airplanes without massive subsidies. At a time when the federal debt is heading toward the moon, policymakers should be looking to the private sector to take care of our transportation needs. The country simply can’t afford to sink taxpayer money into high-speed rail when it makes so little economic sense.