High-speed rail torpedoed

Becky Fenger Fenger PointingObama lied. Last week he stood in front of a crowd and told them that our lack of spending on infrastructure is what caused the bridge to collapse in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on August 1, 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145 others. That's a fib to nowhere.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that it was a design flaw that caused the bridge to fail. The victims, who were dropped 100 feet into the river below, received over $54 million from the engineering firm responsible for the bridge's inspection. If anything else is to be blamed, it could be the fact that so much transportation money was diverted to the Hiawatha light rail line that connects downtown Minneapolis to Bloomington.

Obama, of course, is shilling for his dream of spending half a trillion dollars on high-speed rail projects that would connect most major American cities. In his State of the Union address in January, he called for giving "80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years." The insanity of spending this much money that we don't have on such a plan is exponentially worse than the pitiful cost/benefits results of our spending on light rail projects. And high-speed rail would be just as underutilized as light rail is.

There is great news, for now. Obama's dream was rather handily smashed on April 11 in the budget deal worked out by Senate and House leaders. It zeroed out finding for high-speed rail and took back $400 million of unspent funds that had been approved for 2010. And (be still my heart) it cut Amtrak's budget by $80 million.

Transportation expert Randal O'Toole cautions us history shows that rail projects are never truly dead as long as rail nuts and rail contractors work together to keep them alive. He doubts the Congressional leaders who took high-speed rail out of the 2011 spending bill are likely to put it back into the six-year reauthorization bill, even though the frenzied folks at the National Alliance of Public Transportation Advocates (NAPTA) are lobbying like crazed wildebeests.

NAPTA is telling supporters to use the talking point that high-speed and intercity passenger rail investments are a catalyst to create jobs. Since unemployment rates are so high, any idea for more government spending is couched in the phrase "will create jobs." Their bulletin wants us to call our Congressmen and tell him/her that when gas prices rise, taking public transportation is the quickest way to beat gas prices. Really?

I've got a news flash for them. The last time that prices at the pump soared, Americans were told building rail lines was the answer. Here in Phoenix, we ran the numbers. It turned out gas prices would have to hit $50 per gallon in order for the cost of light rail travel to be more economical than driving a car if the light rail rider paid the full cost of his trip instead of the mere pittance his ticket covers. So much for that bumper-sticker argument.

That is why I applaud the newly-elected governors in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin who rejected billions of dollars in federal rail money for high-speed rail projects, calling them costly boondoggles. Gov. Rick Scott was too smart to fall for a Tampa-to-Orlando line that saved only minutes over driving. High speed, my foot. O'Toole sees Obama's "high-speed" rail lines likely limited to only three states: Illinois, North Carolina and Washington. His calculations show that the Washington state plan will spend around $750 million to increase speeds by a paltry 2.7 miles per hour. If their taxpayers fail to pay for the operation of these lines for the next 20 years, they could be liable to repay part of the capital grants back to the feds.

Think about this for a minute. Local politicians everywhere are fighting like piranha over rapidly shrinking pots of federal money that won't be there to complete their beloved projects and might have to be paid back. If the taxpayers can't afford to operate the lines, how in the hell can they pay back the "windfall" they pulled down from Uncle Sam?

"I guarantee the flying public we will not sleep until we can guarantee that there's good safety in the control towers when these planes are coming in and out of airports." Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, ABC's "World News," on sleeping air traffic controllers.