Obama admin slaps down OH, WI govs on high-speed rail

Posted on November 10, 2010

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Two recently-elected governors, John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, both ran on scrapping plans for high-speed rail lines in their respective states that would have been paid for with stimulus funds. Both felt, correctly in my view, that construction of these lines is a wasteful boondoggle destined to lose money in the long run and isn’t driven by any real-world demand except that of centrally-planning bureaucrats.

Upon election, both governors submitted a request to the Obama administration to use the high-speed rail funds for other infrastructure projects, such as repairing bridges and roads and upgrading already-existing freight lines. Yesterday Transportation Ray LaHood slapped both of them down:

When it comes to the stimulus money, “none of those funds may be used for anything other than our high-speed rail program,” wrote Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a letter to Kasich dated November 9 and obtained by Reuters late Tuesday.

“I respect the authority of governors to make decisions for their states,” LaHood said. “If, however, you choose not to participate in the program, we would like to engage in an orderly transition to wind down Ohio’s involvement in the project so that we do not waste taxpayers’ money.”

In a similar letter to Walker that also threatened to end Wisconsin’s involvement in the program, LaHood said 30 foreign rail manufacturers agreed to locate their bases of operations to the United States “so that we can restart idled manufacturing plants here at home and put our skilled workers back on the job.”

So both states will simply lose substantial sums of government hand-out money if it isn’t spent on these lines. The money may have been specifically earmarked for high-speed rail, but it doesn’t appear as though Secretary LaHood really respects the authority of governors if he’s going to insist that he knows better than they how best to allocate transportation funds within their states.

High-speed rail lines are billed by their supporters as smart transportation upgrades that will breathe new life into the regions they service. After all, they’ve worked out great for Europe – but the Midwest isn’t Europe, and the lines won’t be the economic boon they’re promised to be. According to an Amtrak study, an Ohio high-speed line would operate at a $17 million annual deficit, requiring government subsidies to cover 58% of operating expenses.

In addition, passengers would spend more time in transit than they would in a car and pay more in ticket costs than they would for gasoline. It seems like the whole plan is a make-work boondoggle designed to spur the rail industry at the expense of taxpayers.

Governor-elect Walker has already pledged to go ahead with plans to scrap the line, saying, “I believe it is a grave mistake for the federal government to insist on building an unwanted passenger rail system at a time when our roads and bridges are literally crumbling.” I hope Governor-elect Kasich does the same thing. If it means giving up, in Ohio’s case, on $400 million, then it’s just a hefty piece of change that won’t be wasted on bureaucratic pipe dreams.

Cross-posted at The Moderate Voice.

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Posted in: News, Politics