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Marginal Impacts
High-speed rail symbolizes a stunning descent for federal transportation policy.


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Samuel R. Staley

High-speed rail has emerged as the Obama administration’s signature transportation initiative. While advocates hail the project as a long-overdue commitment to the nation’s passenger-rail infrastructure, in reality it reflects a remarkable marginalization of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) at a time when bold federal leadership is crucial. The administration has chosen to elevate an expensive program targeted at an extraordinarily narrow segment of the traveling public over programs that could provide meaningful relief to tens of millions of travelers on a daily basis.

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The last twelve months have shown convincingly that transportation issues can’t compete with signature Obama initiatives such as health-care reform, climate-change measures, or economic-recovery plans, even as our annual infrastructure deficit balloons into the hundreds of billions of dollars. More than one year into the Obama administration’s tenure, federal transportation policy languishes, a stepchild to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the victim of half-hearted attempts to promote mass transit as an alternative to the more nimble automobile.

Until January, the DOT served as little more than a spigot for federal dollars to fund a dubious jobs program. While the department justifiably bragged of its ability to get dollars out the door, many of these projects were low-priority — they had already been passed over by state transportation departments for higher-priority projects. No attempt was made to distinguish projects that might improve traffic speeds or reduce congestion from make-work curb replacements on local roads.

The administration’s high-speed-rail initiative is at least conceived as an actual transportation program with a goal of improving mobility between cities. But the plan’s stunningly narrow impact disqualifies it as a marquee program. Intercity rail currently accounts for less than 1 percent of all travel in the U.S. It will compete primarily with short-haul (less than 500 miles) air travel, but all air travel, including long-haul trips, accounts for just 10.8 percent of all travel in the U.S. Even if the project is a success, business travelers and well-heeled tourists will reap most of the benefits.

Meanwhile, despite the recession, the far more pervasive and economically debilitating problem of urban traffic congestion continues largely unabated. After brief retrenchment in 2008, congestion began to creep up again in the top 100 metropolitan areas in 2009. By 2030, the Reason Foundation estimates, 42 percent of the U.S. population will live in urban areas with severe congestion problems. Yet congestion barely registers on the national-policy radar screen, a holdover from the more aggressive leadership under former DOT secretaries Mary Peters and Norm Mineta.

Even if the DOT shifted gears to dramatically bolster urban mass transit, its chances of making a meaningful dent in traffic congestion outside of New York City and certain corridors in Chicago would be small. Mass transit accounts for just 1 percent of travel overall, and about 5 percent of commuting.



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