Topic: Energy and Environment

Yglesias on High-Speed Rail

On November 1, the Washington Post published a devastating critique of high-speed rail written by journalist Robert Samuelson. In fewer than 800 words, Samuelson blows up just about all the arguments put forth in favor of rail. An 8-word summary: costs are too high and benefits too low.

One person who remains unconvinced is Matthew Yglesias, who dismisses most of Samuelson’s arguments because some of them resemble the work of a “car-subsidy shill,” namely me. Apparently, if you believe, as I do, that all modes of transportation should be paid for by users, and not by tax subsidies, then you, too, are a “car-subsidy shill.”

Yglesias did not even read Samuelson’s article, instead reading only a Cato-at-Liberty blog post by Tad DeHaven about that article. But after a mere three or four paragraphs of analysis, Yglesias somehow concludes that $1 trillion for high-speed rail is “a bargain.” His analysis, such as it is, comes down to two points. First, Randal O’Toole opposes high-speed rail, so therefore it must be a good thing. Second (pulling out his mortgage calculator), at 4.1 percent interest over 30 years, $1 trillion is really “only” $58 billion per year. “Let’s do it!” he concludes.

I’ve never met Yglesias, so he probably doesn’t know that I personally love trains and hate driving. But as an policy analyst, I have to put my personal preferences aside and ask a couple of questions that never seem to occur to Yglesias. First, what are the benefits? Second, what do you have to give up to pay the costs?

The answer to the first question is: negligible. High-speed trains will carry less than 10 percent of the number of passenger miles carried by the Interstate Highway System (all the cost of which was paid out of user fees), and virtually no freight (interstate highways not only carry 20 percent of all passenger miles but about 15 percent of all freight ton-miles in the United States).

The history of transportation shows that new technologies succeed when they are faster, more convenient, and less expensive than existing technologies. High-speed rail is slower than flying, less convenient than driving, and (based on Amtrak’s Acela) at least five times more expensive than either. That means, as Samuelson says, “High-speed rail would subsidize a tiny group of travelers and do little else.”

Moreover, really successful new transportation technologies significantly increase mobility. Yet Florida predicts that only 4 percent (see p. 13) of the riders on its 168-mph trains would be new mobility. California’s 220-mph trains would create even less new mobility: the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s latest estimate predicts that less than 1 percent (see p. 9) of its ridership would be new mobility. Here’s an arithmetic lesson for Yglesias: something that creates almost no new mobility, and merely substitutes high-cost transportation for a few marginal travelers previously using low-cost modes, is not a good deal.

Nor is high-speed rail the environmental answer to anything. The environmental costs of construction are high, while the environmental benefits of operations are low, leading Florida to conclude in its environmental impact statement that “the environmentally preferred alternative is the no build alternative” (see p. 2-38). In fact, both cars and airplanes are becoming more energy efficient so rapidly that, by the time a national high-speed rail system could be built, rail would be the brown form of passenger travel.

On the cost side, Yglesias only asks whether my $1 trillion estimate, which is “based on the costs estimates of the California system,” is valid considering that “California is an above-average cost jurisdiction.” That’s a legitimate question that would have been answered if he had bothered to read the footnoted reference. (I divided routes into low-cost and high-cost lines and used different estimates for each.)

Samuelson’s cost estimate was only $200 billion, but that was for high-speed rail in California and Florida and moderate-speed rail (90- to 110-mph) everywhere else. The $1 trillion is for a true national network of high-speed (150-220-mph) rail. I was not the first to use a $1 trillion estimate; that was Matt Rose, the CEO of the BNSF Railway, who probably knows a little more about rail costs than either Yglesias or me.

Beyond that, how could anyone conclude that $58 billion per year is a low price for anything, especially in today’s economy? Where is this money going to come from? Not the states, most of which are financially strapped. Perhaps we could cut all other federal spending on surface transportation–but that was only $54 billion in 2009. I know: let’s pass a health care law that will save money. But we already did that, and now federal health-care costs are projected to rise by, coincidentally, $58 billion between 2009 and 2011. Darn–there goes the money for high-speed rail. (All these numbers are from page 69 of the 2011 federal budget historical tables.)

High-speed rail riders aren’t going to pay $59 billion per year–they won’t even pay the operating costs of high-speed rail on most routes, which Yglesias managed to ignore. Amtrak claims its Acela trains earn a profit (not counting capital costs), but the Acela shares a lot of its operating costs with other Boston-to-Washington trains, which lose money. Between the two of them, they barely broke even in 2009 (see p. C-1). No other high-speed rail route in this country is likely to do as well.

By the way, in order to break even on Boston-to-Washington trains, Amtrak charged Acela riders 72 cents per passenger mile. That’s more than five times the average fares charged by airlines and intercity bus companies. Fares on Amtrak’s low-speed trains are only twice air and bus fares, which I am sure Yglesias thinks is a bargain.

I don’t know why Matt Yglesias thinks spending $1 trillion on trains that only a few people will ride would be a bargain. But I have no doubt that high-speed rail would be a high-cost burden on taxpayers.

The Current Wisdom

The Current Wisdom  is a series of monthly posts in which Senior Fellow Patrick J. Michaels reviews interesting items on global warming in the scientific literature that may not have received the media attention that they deserved, or have been misinterpreted in the popular press.

The Current Wisdom only comments on science appearing in the refereed, peer-reviewed literature, or that has been peer-screened prior to presentation at a scientific congress.

 More Good News About Sea Level Rise

In the last (and first) installment of The Current Wisdom, I looked at how projections of catastrophic sea level rise—some as high as 20 feet this century—are falling by the wayside as more real-world data comes in. In the last month, there’s been even more hot-off-the-press studies that a) continue to beat down the notion of disastrous inundations, and b) received no media attention whatsoever.

Last month, I featured a new analysis which showed that the calibration scheme for satellite gravity measurements was out of whack, leading to an overestimation loss of glacial ice from Greenland and Antarctica by about 50%.   

This time around, there are two brand-new studies which further dampen the fears of rapid sea level rise spawned by a warming climate.  The one estimates that about 25% of the current sea level rise has nothing whatsoever to do with “global warming” from any cause, but instead is contributed by our increasing removal of fossil groundwater to suit our growing water demands. And the second estimates that the total sea level rise contribution of one of Antarctica’s biggest outlet glaciers—one which has been called “the weak underbelly” of the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet—is most likely only going to be about 1/2 inch by the year 2100. Neither met the press, which is why you are reading about them here.

Last month we concluded that “things had better get cooking in a hurry if the real world is going to approach these popular estimates [3 to 20 feet of sea level rise by 2100]. And there are no signs that such a move is underway.” Now, there are even more signs that the massive sea level rise candle is flaming out as rapidly as cap-and-trade in an election year.

A team of scientists from the Netherlands, headed by the appropriately surnamed Yoshihide Wada, have been investigating the magnitude and trends of groundwater usage around the world. For millennia, humans  “mined” water under the surface, but the volumes were globally inconsequential.

Wada et al. found many regions, including the Midwestern and Southwestern U.S., in which groundwater extraction exceeds groundwater replenishment. Around the world, Wada et al. found that the total excess was about 30 cubic miles per year in 1960, which rose to about 68 by the year 2000.

What on earth does this have to do with sea-level rise?

Remember that, outside of nuclear reactions, matter is never destroyed.  Water taken out of the ground either runs off to a creek and makes it back to the ocean, or it evaporates.  Because the total water vapor concentration in the atmosphere is constant (depending upon the average temperature of the water/atmosphere interface), the additional evaporation is available for precipitation, adding to that which runs off.   

68 cubic miles of added water to the ocean each year amounts to about three-hundredths of an inch of sea level. Granted, this is a small amount, but (despite the scare headlines emanating from our greener friends), the annual rate of global sea level rise during the past 20 years has only been about 0.12 inches per year.  So groundwater extraction accounts for about a quarter (.03/.12) of the current rate of sea level rise.

This is a rather large bite out of the apple of sea level rise, and it means that estimates of just how much sea level rise is being caused by ongoing global warming have to be slashed.

In a much-hyped paper appearing in Science magazine back in early 2007, Stefan Rahmstorf and colleagues (including NASA’s infamous Cassandra James Hansen, the Nouriel Roubini of climatology), proclaimed that sea level rise is occurring at a rate which was at the very high end of the projections from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—fuelling claims that the IPCC sea level rise projections from climate change were too conservative.

(Hansen is also the lonely champion of the notion that sea level will rise 20 feet in the next 89 years.  Twenty years ago, he predicted that New York’s Westside Highway would be inundated by now.)[1]

If the Rahmstorf et al. analysis were updated through 2010 and the impact from groundwater depletion figured in, it would turn out that the observed rate of sea level rise from global warming would fall at or below the IPCC’s mid-range projection which ultimately results in about 15 inches of sea level rise by 2100. Such a finding of course would ignite very  little hype—which is why you are reading it here.

Ah, but you say, don’t the global warming doomsayers tell us that  the rate of sea level rise will accelerate rapidly as the climate warms and glaciers atop Greenland and Antarctica slip off into the seas, and so the total rise by the end of the century will be much above a value based on an extrapolation of the present?

The idea—graphically portrayed in Al Gore’s science fiction film—is that summer meltwater will flow down the, say, 10,000 feet required to get to the bottom of Greenland’s ice, and “lubricate” the flowing glaciers.  (Of course, the reason glaciers flow to begin with is because the pressure is so great that the bottom water is liquid, but never mind that fact).

Last time, I noted a recent paper by Faezeh Nick and colleagues that basically pooh-poohed the idea that surface meltwater does this. 

Offing the PIG

Another oft-repeated threat is that there are a plethora of glaciers in Antarctica that are grounded in the oceans, and that higher water temperatures will lead to melting from below that will ultimately “unground” them, floating them and causing rapid retreat.  

Alarmist fingers are most often pointed at Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier (PIG), the leading candidate to unground and raise sea levels by up to 4.5 feet a relatively short amount of time.  It was Terence Hughes (from University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, which—surprise—thrives on climate change) in the early 1980s that labeled the PIG as the “weak underbelly” of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet for, in his view, having the biggest potential to contribute a lot of sea level rise in a short amount of time.  Hughes’s belief has become popular of late as the rate of retreat of the PIG increased in the early 1990s.

In 2008,  University of Colorado’s Tad Pfeffer and colleagues projected that the PIG (and the nearby Thwaites glacier) would add between 4.3 and 15.4 inches of sea level rise by 2100.  In early 2010, the reliably alarmist New Scientist headlined “Major Antarctic Glacier ‘Past its Tipping Point’”, inaccurately quoting Oxford’s Richard Katz who actually said “the take-home message is that we should be concerned about tipping points in West Antarctica and we should do a lot more work to investigate” (translation: can I scare you into sending me more money?).

But throwing cold water in the PIG pen are the prolific polar researcher Ian Joughin and his colleagues.  In a new paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, Joughin et al. reported their efforts to simulate the future behavior of PIG using a “basinscale glaciological model” that they verified against a large amount of satellite observations documenting the flow rate and thinning rate of the PIG. Once they were happy that their model depicted the observations correctly, they turned to look at what the future may hold in store.

What they found came as a bit of a surprise. 

Instead of an accelerating retreat, it seems that the PIG’s still-tiny decline may remain constant. Joughin et al., write:

PIG’s dramatic retreat and speedup may not indicate a trend of continued acceleration, and speeds may stabilize at their current elevated levels as thinning continues.

This result ties into another investigation of  recent PIG behavior that was published this summer.  In that one, Jenkins et al. concluded that the geometry of the sea floor upon which the PIG rested is what allowed for a rapid retreat when warming first commenced. In other words, the PIG was predisposed to a rapid response—initially.

When Joughin et al. plug potential future climate change into their glaciological model of PIG, they found that the initial acceleration is not maintained for very long, and instead soon stabilizes. This has large implications. Instead of PIG contributing many inches of sea level this century, they found about a single inch—and that was the worst case.  Joughin and colleagues best estimate is something closer to ½ inch.

Joughin et al. conclude:

While we have not modeled the other [nearby Antarctic] glaciers, PIG is the most rapidly changing and largest contributor to the current imbalance, indicating future model-derived upper bounds on 21st century sea level for the entire region are likely to fall well below the heuristically derived 11-to-39 cm upper bound [Pfeffer et al., 2008].

Hardly catastrophic.

Sooner or later, these facts may penetrate into public consciousness… but until then I hope you’ll continue to consult The Current Wisdom.


Hughes, T. J., 1981, The Weak Underbelly of the West Antarctic Ice-Sheet. Journal of Glaciology, 27, 518–525.

Jenkins, A., et al., 2010. Observations Beneath Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica and Implications for its Retreat. Nature Geoscience, 3(7), 468–472, doi:10.1038/ngeo890.

Katz, R. F., and  M. G. Worster, 2010. Stability of Ice-sheet Grounding Lines. Proceedings of the Royal Society A, 466, 1597-1620.

Nick, F. M., et al., 2009. Large-scale Changes in Greenland Outlet Glacier DynamicsTtriggered at the Terminus. Nature Geoscience, DOI:10.1038, published on-line January 11, 2009.

Pfeffer, W. T., Harper, J. T., and S. O’Neel, 2008. Kinematic Constraints on Glacier Contributions to 21st-century Sea-level Rise. Science, 321, 1340-1343.

Rahmstorf, S., et al., 2007. Recent Climate Observations Compared to Projections. Science, 316, 709.

Joughin, I., Smith, B. E., and D. M. Holland, 2010. Sensitivity of 21st Century Sea Level to Ocean-induced Thinning of Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica. Geophysical Research Letters, 37, L20502, doi:10.1029/2010GL044819.

Wada, Y., et al. 2010. Global Depletion of Groundwater Resources. Geophysical Research Letters, 37, L20402, doi:10.1029/2010GL044571.


[1] In 1988, author Robert Reiss asked Hansen, whose office is on Broadway, what greenhouse-effect changes would occur in the next twenty years.  He said, among other things, “The West Side Highway [which runs along the Hudson River] will be under water. And there will be tape across the windows across the street because of high winds. And the same birds won’t be there. The trees in the median strip will change.” Then he said, “There will be more police cars.” Why? “Well, you know what happens to crime when the heat goes up.”

Bootleggers & Baptists, a Welcome Correction

In my recent “Bootleggers & Baptists, Sugary Soda Edition” post, I wrote that environmentalists and agribusiness team up to support ethanol subsidies. An alert Cato@Liberty reader writes to my colleague Jerry Taylor:

[Cannon] is no doubt right that environmentalists and agribusiness worked together to promote government subsidies to ethanol through about 2006. But by 2007 (when the ethanol mandate was doubled) the environmentalists had dropped out of the pro-ethanol coalition, to be replaced by national-security hawks! If you run into him, please tell him to stop blaming environmentalists for current biofuels policies!

If environmentalists have recently dropped their support for ethanol subsidies, they deserve credit for that. Mea culpa.

I would rather have been completely wrong about the environmentalists’ support for ethanol subsidies. But I’ll settle for being partly wrong.

November Nail in Rail Coffin?

The New York Times offers an unintentionally hopeful story on Republican candidates running for governor who could become significant obstacles for the Obama administration’s high-speed rail agenda.

As I recently discussed, Wisconsin GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker has taken the position that Washington can keep the $810 million it allocated for a “high-speed” rail line between Madison and Milwaukee that would operate at speeds achieved in the 1930s. The Times article shows that Walker isn’t alone:

Similar concerns are threatening to stall many of the nation’s biggest train projects. In Ohio, the Republican candidate for governor, John Kasich, is vowing to kill a $400 million federal stimulus project to link Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati by rail. In Florida, Rick Scott, the Republican candidate for governor, has questioned whether the state should invest in the planned rail line from Orlando to Tampa. The state got $1.25 billion in federal stimulus money for the project, but it will cost at least twice that much to complete.

And the nation’s most ambitious high-speed rail project, California’s $45 billion plan to link Los Angeles and San Francisco with trains that would go up to 220 miles per hour, could be delayed if Meg Whitman, a Republican, is elected governor. “In the face of the state’s current fiscal crisis, Meg doesn’t believe we can afford the costs associated with new high-speed rail at this time,” said Tucker Bounds, a campaign spokesman.

Whitman is right: California can’t afford high-speed rail, nor can the rest of the country. A Cato essay on high-speed rail notes that it would cost around $1 trillion to build a nationwide system of high-speed rail. That’s a lot of other people’s money to spend on a mode of transportation that “would not likely capture more than about 1 percent of the nation’s market for passenger travel.”

Randal O’Toole nicely sums up why high-speed rail doesn’t make any sense:

The history of transportation shows that we adopt new technologies when they are faster, more convenient, and less expensive than the technologies they replace. High-speed rail is slower than flying, less convenient than driving, and far more expensive than either one. As a result, it will never serve more than a few marginal travelers.

In the meantime, Amtrak – the poster child for bad federal transportation ideas – recently unveiled a $117 billion, 30-year “vision” for high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor.

From the Washington Post:

At a news conference at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station on Tuesday, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman said the proposal is at the visionary stage, and there’s no funding plan in place. It aims for high-speed rail by 2040.

Of course Amtrak has no funding in place – it depends on taxpayer subsidies to remain in operation!

As a series of Cato essays on the Department of Transportation demonstrates, policymakers should be focusing on getting the private sector more involved in the financing and operation of transportation.

The Current Wisdom

NOTE:  This is the first in a series of monthly posts in which Senior Fellow Patrick J. Michaels reviews interesting items on global warming in the scientific literature that may not have received the media attention that they deserved, or have been misinterpreted in the popular press.

The Current Wisdom only comments on science appearing in the refereed, peer-reviewed literature, or that has been peer-screened prior to presentation at a scientific congress.

The Iceman Goeth:  Good News from Greenland and Antarctica

How many of us have heard that global sea level will be about a meter—more than three feet—higher in 2100 than it was in the year 2000?  There are even scarier stories, circulated by NASA’s James E. Hansen, that the rise may approach 6 meters, altering shorelines and inundating major cities and millions of coastal inhabitants worldwide.

Figure 1. Model from a travelling climate change exhibit (currently installed at the Field Museum of natural history in Chicago) of Lower Manhattan showing what 5 meters (16 feet) of sea level rise will look like.

In fact, a major exhibition now at the prestigious Chicago Field Museum includes a 3-D model of Lower Manhattan under 16 feet of water—this despite the general warning from the James Titus, who has been EPA’s sea-level authority for decades:

Researchers and the media need to stop suggesting that Manhattan or even Miami will be lost to a rising sea. That’s not realistic; it promotes denial and panic, not a reasoned consideration of the future.

Titus was commenting upon his 2009 publication on sea-level rise in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

The number one rule of grabbing attention for global warming is to never let the facts stand in the way of a good horror story, so advice like Titus’s is usually ignored.

The catastrophic sea level rise proposition is built upon the idea that large parts of the ice fields that lay atop Greenland and Antarctica will rapidly melt and slip into the sea as temperatures there rise.  Proponents of this idea claim that the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its most recent (2007) Assessment Report,  was far too conservative in its projections of future sea level rise—the mean value of which is a rise by the year 2100 of about 15 inches.

In fact, contrary to virtually all news coverage, the IPCC actually anticipates that Antarctica will gain ice mass (and lower sea level) as the climate warms, since the temperature there is too low to produce much melting even if it warms up several degrees, while the warmer air holds more moisture and therefore precipitates more snow. The IPCC projects Greenland to contribute a couple of inches of sea level rise as ice melts around its periphery.

Alarmist critics claim that the IPCC’s projections are based only on direct melt estimates rather than “dynamic” responses of the glaciers and ice fields to rising temperatures.

These include Al Gore’s favorite explanation—that melt water from the surface percolates down to the bottom of the glacier and lubricates its base, increasing flow and ultimately ice discharge. Alarmists like Gore and Hansen claim that Greenland and Antarctica’s glaciers will then “surge” into the sea, dumping an ever-increasing volume of ice and raising water levels worldwide.

The IPCC did not include this mechanism because it is very hypothetical and not well understood.  Rather, new science argues that the IPCC’s minuscule projections of sea level rise from these two great ice masses are being confirmed.

About a year ago, several different research teams reported that while glaciers may surge from time to time and increase ice discharge rates, these surges are not long-lived and that basal lubrication is not a major factor in these surges. One research group, led by Faezeh Nick and colleagues reported that “our modeling does not support enhanced basal lubrication as the governing process for the observed changes.” Nick and colleagues go on to find that short-term rapid increases in discharge rates are not stable and that “extreme mass loss cannot be dynamically maintained in the long term” and ultimately concluding that “[o]ur results imply that the recent rates of mass loss in Greenland’s outlet glaciers are transient and should not be extrapolated into the future.”

But this is actually old news. The new news is that the commonly-reported (and commonly hyped) satellite estimates of mass loss from both Greenland and Antarctica were a result of improper calibration, overestimating ice loss by  some 50%.

As with any new technology, it takes a while to get all the kinks worked out. In the case of the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite-borne instrumentation, one of the major problems is interpreting just what exactly the satellites are measuring. When trying to ascertain mass changes (for instance, from ice loss) from changes in the earth’s gravity field, you first have to know how the actual land under the ice is vertically moving (in many places it is still slowly adjusting from the removal of the glacial ice load from the last ice age).

The latest research by a team led by Xiaoping Wu from Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory concludes that the adjustment models that were being used by previous researchers working with the GRACE data didn’t do that great of a job. Wu and colleagues enhanced the existing models by incorporating land movements from a network of GPS sensors, and employing more sophisticated statistics. What they found has been turning heads.

Using the GRACE measurements and the improved model, the new estimates of the rates of ice loss from Greenland and Antarctica  are only about half as much as the old ones.

Instead of Greenland losing ~230 gigatons of ice each year since 2002, the new estimate is 104 Gt/yr. And for Antarctica, the old estimate of ~150 Gt/yr has been modified to be about 87 Gt/yr.

 How does this translate into sea level rise?

 It takes about 37.4 gigatons of ice loss to raise the global sea level 0.1 millimeter—four hundredths of an inch. In other words, ice loss from Greenland is currently contributing just over one-fourth of a millimeter of sea level rise per year, or one one-hundreth of an inch.  Antarctica’s contribution is just under one-fourth of a millimeter per year.  So together, these two regions—which contain 99% of all the land ice on earth—are losing ice at a rate which leads to an annual sea level rise of one half of one millimeter per year. This is equivalent to a bit less than 2 hundredths of an inch per year.  If this continues for the next 90 years, the total sea level rise contributed by Greenland and Antarctica by the year 2100 will amount to less than 2 inches.

 Couple this with maybe 6-8 inches from the fact that the ocean rises with increasing temperature,  temperatures and 2-3 inches from melting of other land-based ice, and you get a sum total of about one foot of additional rise by century’s end.

 This is about 1/3rd of the 1 meter estimates and 1/20th of the 6 meter estimates.

Things had better get cooking in a hurry if the real world is going to approach these popular estimates. And there are no signs that such a move is underway.

So far, the 21st century has been pretty much of a downer for global warming alarmists. Not only has the earth been warming at a rate considerably less than the average rate projected by climate models, but now the sea level rise is suffering a similar fate.

Little wonder that political schemes purporting to save us from these projected (non)calamities are also similarly failing to take hold.


Nick, F. M., et al., 2009. Large-scale changes in Greenland outlet glacier dynamics triggered at the terminus. Nature Geoscience, DOI:10.1038, published on-line January 11, 2009.

Titus, J.G., et al., 2009. State and Local Governments Plan for Development of Most Land Vulnerable to Rising Sea Level along the U.S. Atlantic Coast, Environmental Research Letters 4 044008. (doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/4/4/044008).

Wu, X., et al., 2010. Simultaneous estimation of global present-day water treansport and glacial isostatic adjustment. Nature Geoscience, published on-line August 15, 2010, doi: 10.1038/NGE0938.

High-Speed Rail Battle

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, 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.