Is America too slow to build fast trains?

Maybe contemporary America has become too snarky for progress. Maybe that’s why sweeping change can best be effected in quick emergency measures. Because when we slow down to have a national conversation a coalition of loons and foot draggers invariably forms to stop us dead in our tracks.
Now they’re threatening to stop us dead in our train tracks.
Behind the dispiriting national conversation about health care reform, a dispiriting conversation is arising over high-speed rail.
It has ignited simultaneously in the unlikeliest of places–in The New York Times, which hosted a highly speculative series written by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, and in the San Francisco Bay Area, where cities and railroads are quibbling over routes. But it has hit bottom, so far, in the Washington Post, where Robert J. Samuelson declares high-speed rail a boondoggle before we’ve even tried it:
The Obama administration’s enthusiasm for high-speed rail is a dispiriting example of government’s inability to learn from past mistakes. Since 1971, the federal government has poured almost $35 billion in subsidies into Amtrak with few public benefits. At most, we’ve gotten negligible reductions — invisible and statistically insignificant — in congestion, oil use or greenhouse gases. What’s mainly being provided is subsidized transportation for a small sliver of the population. In a country where 140 million people go to work every day, Amtrak has 78,000 daily passengers. A typical trip is subsidized by about $50.
Given this, you’d think even the dullest politician wouldn’t expand rail subsidies, especially considering the almost $11 trillion in projected federal budget deficits between now and 2019. But no, the administration has made high-speed rail a top priority.
Amtrak is a drag because it’s Amtrak, Bob, a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together from dying passenger lines operating on tracks designed in the 19th Century to bring cattle to market. Who wants to take Amtrak when you can fly over it? Some people do, and my hat’s off to them, but high-speed trains will run on new high-speed rails. And they’ll run fast enough to better compete with aircraft.
Chicago to Detroit: airplane, slow train or fast train? There’s no contest. By the time you get through airport security you’d be halfway home on the bullet train. New York to Philadelphia? Kansas City to St. Louis? Seattle to Portland?
Samuelson borrows Glaeser’s argument that America’s population density is too meager to support high-speed rail, as if we would be taking bullet trains from Chanhassen to Mukilteo. But the high-speed rail plan skips the Great Plains where the vast prairie vastly reduces the national population density figure they’re using. Corridors would link major cities in regions that have the population density to support them.
Maybe someday we can have high speed trains that run mainly on the Plains, but that’s not the plan today.
Glaeser coughs up some scary cost estimates, which are handily dismantled by Ryan Avent of the DCStreetsBlog (“Ed Glaeser’s Rail Fail“), yet which are sure to be repeated on the fearmongering media, beginning with Samuelson’s story. The rest of the fearmongering media will surely hop aboard when they finish preserving the peril of the 46 million Americans who lack health insurance. But the rail fear is spreading already, and even TreeHugger is planting doubts.
What if 19th Century America, faced with the expense of the intercontinental railroad, decided we were just fine with the wagon train? What if 20th Century America decided it was too expensive to build airports in our cities? What if 21st Century America thinks too slow for high-speed rail?
We’ll only be able to visit fast trains in can-do countries like China. And Turkey. South Korea. And 14 other countries so far.
At the end of September, the nation’s surface transportation plan expires, and the Senate will write a new one, possibly one designed to get America beyond the gridlocked mentality of three cars in every garage, one American in every car. High-speed rail should be in the new plan.

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