In our opinion: A high-speed boondoggle

Published: Friday, Feb. 18 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

If traveling from Chicago to St.Louis, which would you prefer: A "high-speed" rail trip that takes 3 hours and 40 minutes, or a trip on a major airline that takes 1 hour and 5 minutes.

We're guessing most Americans would take to the air, as they do now. That would be the same almost regardless of price. A current flight between those cities, booked a month in advance, costs as little as $109 one-way. But the Amtrak ride, which now takes 5 hours and 20 minutes, only a little longer than the proposed high-speed rail time, costs about $25. Those who can't afford the flight probably would rather drive the distance, instead.

And yet the Obama administration is proposing $8 billion to kick-start 13 high-speed rail projects nationwide, providing a service that, other than in congested coastal areas, primarily on the East coast, the market has shown no interest in receiving.

We applaud three governors who this week announced they would reject their allotment of these funds. Florida's Rick Scott, Wisconsin's Scott Walker and Ohio's John Kasich each said the federal money would be only the start of something that would cost their states much more in the long run. Their stands would be practical even in the best of economic times. They are particularly prudent, however, at a time when states are suffering and the federal government is laboring under the weight of record budget deficits.

Despite all the agonizing over how the United States is falling behind other nations in this aspect of travel, there is virtually total agreement among scholars and economists that only two high-speed rail lines in the world — one from Paris to Lyon, France, and the other from Tokyo to Osaka in Japan — make a profit. The rest require taxpayer subsidies to operate.

Supporters of high-speed rail in the United States like to invoke the memories of the transcontinental railroad or President Dwight D. Eisenhower's interstate highway system. Those were indeed public projects that opened new avenues of trade and settlement, while helping economies to expand. But they also met real market needs. The United States may have transportation problems, but people are not clamoring for rail as the solution.

Others argue that trains would be better for the environment than cars and airplanes. It's hard to disagree, except that billions of dollars invested in rail isn't likely to put much of a dent in either of those modes, except perhaps in some densely populated areas, of which there are few across this relatively sparsely populated continent.

The real cost of building a nationwide high-speed rail system would be more than $100 billion, according to some experts. But the governors who rejected their share of the money note that government ridership forecasts tend to be overstated, just as cost estimates tend to be understated. That means taxpayers will end up paying much more in ongoing operating costs. A nation trying to regain its economic legs doesn't need this kind of a burden.

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