The Agenda

Yonah Freemark on Conservative Objections to Rail

Yonah has written a thoughtful reply to conservatives who’ve been critical of HSR investment that merits attention:


Do Ms. McArdle, Mr. Salam, or Mr. Mica in fact want more money for rail? Would any of them be willing to set aside the $117 billion Amtrak needs to upgrade the Northeast Corridor?

I would be the first to admit that the Northeast Corridor is the best place for high-speed rail in the country and that it deserves funding — I, for one, would love to be able to get from my perch in Boston down to Washington in just three hours. But conservatives were fighting against the rail program before the Department of Transportation made its selections! Is it honest to suggest that conservatives would have been supportive of more — far more – funding for intercity rail if they knew that funding was going to the “right” lines?

There is an understandable lack of precision here. Some conservatives were fighting against the tail program, and most were fighting it because of a broader objection to the fiscal stimulus law. I don’t think most conservatives would have supported far more funding for intercity rail, mostly due to concerns over competing uses for those funds. Yet I can imagine a decent number of conservative legislators backing a targeted program of investment in intercity rail, and better still a policy approach that builds on the strengths of our freight rail system.

But what are those “right” lines? Singled out by the aforementioned commentators was the California project, which as framed by Ms. McArdle is particularly “ridiculous” because “there aren’t any, like, passengers.” “Could it be that Tea Party members have been referring to trains to nowhere because the first leg of the unviable California HSR effort link two cities with a combined population of 25,000?,” Mr. Salam advanced.

The story is more complex. The first section of the California project will connect Fresno and Bakersfield, stopping near Hanford on the way. Together, the three metropolitan areas this line would serve constitute the primary residence for more than two million people. More importantly, while the funding is not yet fully committed, California is well on the way to being able to connect this core segment with extensions to San Francisco and Los Angeles — the Central Valley, after all, lies between them. Northeast Corridor or not, no one should deny the national importance of connecting those two metropolitan areas. The state rail authority’s announcement today that it has received 1,100 expressions of interest in being involved financially in the project from private groups like Alstom and Virgin should provide evidence that this is not in any way a hopeless cause.

I am aware of this complexity because I linked to Yonah on precisely this subject back in late November:


Other corridors under consideration for the first $4.3 billion in expenditures included the routes between San Francisco and San Jose; Fresno and Merced; and Los Angeles and Bakersfield. But in awarding California some $715 million for the project last month, the Federal Railroad Administration made clear that it wanted its dollars spent on the Central Valley. This left the state with virtually no choice but to pick a segment between Bakersfield and Merced.

Imagine if some fraction of that $4.3 billion were devoted to improving speeds on the Los Angeles to San Diego route, one of Amtrak’s busiest. Or if the San Francisco to San Jose route dramatically improved connectivity in the Bay Area, giving a small boost to the region’s economic potential regardless of whether the entire route is built.  

This strikes me as a self-evidently bad idea. Given our fiscal shape, we can’t afford any more Fresno-Hanfords. San Francisco-San Joses or Los Angeles-San Diegos are a possibility, provided they pay for themselves in a relatively straightforward way. [Emphasis added]

That is, I recognized that the Federal Railroad Administration chose this route precisely because it was unviable, and I found this extremely perverse. Back to Yonah’s more recent post:

Yet even if we were to take the stand that the California project were not good enough — if only the Northeast is appropriate for federal rail investment — there would be no way to articulate a national transportation strategy that ignored the rest of the states given the political realities of representation in the U.S. Congress. In that case, not only would you have a problem achieving bipartisan consensus, but you would isolate rail supporters to just one section of the country. Yet this is in effect the course suggested in the arguments made by those conservatives who claim to support rail.

This is a legitimate point. As a matter of political strategy, we can only secure federal HSR investment anywhere by wasting billions of dollars in less-than-viable corridors. This is akin to what Will Wilkinson has called the “noble lie” theory of redistribution. I have a slightly higher opinion of the democratic public. I’d also rather than we made no federal HSR investments than spend the money on unviable corridors, particularly if we also curbed subsidies to Essential Air Service.  

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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