Leave Transit Projects to Transit Experts, Not Politicians

Stephen Smith sheds light on the problems of leadership holding back Obama's dream of high-speed rail.
Center for Neighborhood Technology / Flickr

When President Barack Obama first set goals for his federal transportation legacy, he aimed high: access to high-speed rail for 80 percent of Americans within 25 years. Now, at the close of his first term, California is the only state with an HSR system scheduled for completion on-time. As Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood likely prepares to step down next year, Smith argues, it may be prudent for the President to reevaluate the leadership platform of the Transportation Department.

Smith writes, "David Gunn, the president of Amtrak from 2002 to 2005, cited a lack of technical knowledge as the biggest problem at the Transportation Department, which he said has devolved into 'an agency that just distributes money.' " In California, for example, the development and operation of HSR was entrusted to the "California High-Speed Rail Authority, which has little operational experience and a barebones staff." In the process, federal authorities effectively shut out freight rail and Amtrak California, whose collective expertise is critical to the success of the system, according to Gunn.

And it's not merely new projects that suffer from such leadership decisions. "Right now, air, highway and rail interests frequently compete against one another to fill the same need. The government often finances projects to widen and build new highways parallel to new rail routes, depressing ridership and limiting the cost-effectiveness of transit."

Smith concludes, "Other transit analysts, such as Joshua Schank of the Eno Center for Transportation, a research group, agreed that it might be time for a transportation secretary from a technical rather than political background. (The office is sometimes used for bipartisan gestures: LaHood, Obama’s first-term transportation secretary, was a Republican U.S. representative from Illinois, and Norman Mineta, who served under George W. Bush for five years, was a Democratic congressman.) "

Full Story: Obama’s New Cabinet Can Make Trains Run on Time




Is this a bad joke? "California is the only state with an HSR system scheduled for completion on-time." Cal HSR is over-budget and beyond schedule already. The problem with HSR is not a lack of leadership; it is that finally, good sense is catching up to HSR. HSR is hugely expensive (financing it helped to bankrupt Spain) and not needed; it competes with regional jet, which works just fine. HSR only benefits higher income long-distance commuters. Fares will be high (Japan's and China's experience). It doesn't reduce road traffic by more than about 5% (Spain's experience). It sucks up more land for right of way. It has few environmental benefits, in part because it uses electricity generated from coal-fired plants. It doesn't produce US jobs, because the high strength steel for rails, the copper for catenaries, and the engine and car sets aren't made in the US. It isn't economically self-sustaining (only two HSR segments in the world pay for themselves).

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