The Quest for the Holy Rail

A few days ago I posted a mildly disputatious item about Robert Samuelson’s column last week on Reagan and inflation, and we subsequently had a couple of cordial e-mail exchanges dilating key points. Well, Samuelson’s column this week on the folly of high-speed rail is not to be missed. I’m in heated agreement with this one. For instance:

There’s something wildly irresponsible about the national government’s undermining states’ already poor long-term budget prospects by plying them with grants that provide short-term jobs. Worse, the high-speed rail proposal casts doubt on the administration’s commitment to reducing huge budget deficits (its 2012 budget is due Monday). How can it subdue deficits if it keeps proposing big new spending programs?

Samuelson runs through some of the numbers, not merely on the extravagant cost, but also how few people use rail transit currently. Amtrak carried 29.1 million passengers last year. Sounds impressive? That’s only one quarter the amount of automobile commutes in a single day. The proposed expansion would have little effect, as Samuelson explains: “It’s a triumph of fancy over fact. Even if ridership increased fifteenfold over Amtrak levels, the effects on congestion, national fuel consumption and emissions would still be trivial. Land use patterns would change modestly, if at all; cutting 20 minutes off travel times between New York and Philadelphia wouldn’t much alter real estate development in either.”
The liberal fixation on rail transit, a 19th century technology ill-suited to 21st century mobility needs, prompts a lot of questions. The proposed high-speed rail system will be a fiscal sink-hole forever. Why is it that liberals only apply “sustainability” to how us lowly private citizens use resources, but never to government spending?
I have a pet theory that is partly–but only partly–tongue-in-cheek. The fascination with rail transit is really an expression of liberalism’s inner authoritarianism, and a plot to undermine Rush Limbaugh. Consider: if you’re in your car, the bureaucrats don’t know where you’re going, or what time you’re going there. And you’re probably going to listen to AM talk radio. But if you’re riding rail transit, the bureaucrats know your destination, your speed, and the time you are traveling. And you won’t be listening to talk radio; more likely you’ll be reading a liberal newspaper instead. Makes more sense than the idea that more passenger rail transit will actually work.


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