“This is how the interstate highway system started, folks,” says V.P. Biden.
As I reported earlier today, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood met with state governors and transportation officials this afternoon to discuss high-speed rail policy after Congress earmarked $8 billion for fast trains in the stimulus bill and will likely include $1 billion additional funds in each budget year 2010-’14. The administration wants states to have a better understanding of what the federal government will be looking for when it starts distributing grants by late summer.
The meeting, as to be expected, was full of administration and state enthusiasm about the transformational potential of high-speed rail. Much of what was said was based on a direct comparison between President Obama’s high-speed rail vision and the Interstate Highway System proposed and initiated by President Eisenhower; unfortunately, that comparison doesn’t stand up to close examination.
Both Mr. Biden and Mr. LaHood discussed the potential of rail to reduce congestion, make travel cleaner, and improve convenience. Those goals are laudable and represent clear, indisputable advantages of investing in high-speed rail. Mr. Biden went too far, however, in saying the following:
“This is how the interstate highway system started, folks. It wasn’t like the Lord on the eighth day said — boom! — there’s the interstate highway system.”
Here’s the basic problem with that line of argument: the Lord — President Eisenhower — did, in fact, say “boom!” 1956’s Federal-Aid Highway Act appropriated $25 billion ($200 billion in 2009 dollars) for the construction of 41,000 miles of grade-separated, fast-moving roadways through 1969. Billions more were appropriated over the following thirty years. Meanwhile, the federal government followed a very specific plan: in 1955, it had a map with authorized routes for freeways and a national network towards which to work was evident from the start.
This barely mirrors how this American high-speed rail project has begun. The Obama Administration appropriated a total of $13 billion in funds (6.5% of the equivalent commitment in 1956) for trains this year. The national network plan envisioned by the administration is actually a compilation of congressionally-approved corridors with little basis in line performance and completely unrelated to work actually being done by states today.
I do not point out the obvious limitations of the administration’s high-speed rail policy to make some jab at the Vice President or the Secretary of Transportation. But President Eisenhower’s enormous commitment would have represented 25% of total budget expenditures ($102 billion) if spent in 1956 alone; on the other hand, President Obama’s “huge” outlay for rail represents a tiny 0.04% of the 2010 budget ($3.6 trillion). Is that comparable? How about China’s stimulus plan to invest $190 billion in its railways?
I am enthusiastic about the White House’s clear interest in promoting rail. But we’re fooling ourselves if we think we’re taking some huge step towards improving our infrastructure with this minimal investment. We need to put in a lot more if we want grand results on par with what Eisenhower put into play.