April 11, 2011

April 11, 2011 | Commentary on Transportation

The Death of a High-Speed-Rail Program

On March 4, 2011, the Florida supreme court unanimously confirmed Gov. Rick Scott’s authority to reject $2.4 billion in federal funding to build an 84 mile high-speed-rail (HSR) line connecting Tampa to the Orlando Airport and Disney World. Governor Scott had rejected the funds in late February, but the combined power and vast financial resources of the federal government, multinational high-speed-rail builders, some local governments, and the Florida business community worked to find a legal loophole with which to circumvent Scott’s repeated rejections.

As a result of the court decision, the project has joined the Ohio and Wisconsin pseudo-HSR proposals, which were rejected by governors John Kasich and Scott Walker, respectively. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has announced that he will redeploy the rejected $2.4 billion to other, more willing states, and on April 6, 2011, he announced that the Department of Transportation would be selecting among the 90 new applicants seeking the funds. None of these projects are for genuine HSR, and instead focus on improving existing slow-speed Amtrak service.

While much of this has been in the national news, what most journalists and commentators have overlooked is the decisive role a handful of pro-market think tanks and Tea Party activists played in putting these projects in the morgue. Beginning in early 2009, when Congress agreed to fund Obama’s new HSR plan with $8 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, analysts at Cato, Reason, and Heritage, working both individually and collectively (through the American Dream Coalition), began to produce work that was critical of the proposals. Cato and Heritage (note: I work at the latter) published several overview papers on the subject, Heritage hosted a total of four seminars, and the Reason Foundation arranged for detailed studies of the California and Florida proposals. Ken Orski, publisher of Innovation Briefs, hammered away with weekly skeptical articles that were widely circulated through the transportation-policy community and media.

As the issue heated up and the projected costs soared, think tanks’ work in this area led to scores of interviews with journalists who were becoming increasingly skeptical of the administration’s claims. By early 2011, even the Washington Post and the New York Times expressed doubts about the plan.

The first victory came in Hillsborough County, Fla. (near Tampa), where the local Tea Party had established an organization called “No Tax for Tracks.” The name referred to a proposal to hike local taxes to pay for a light-rail line that would connect the area to the proposed Tampa/Orlando HSR line. In September of 2010, the group held a rally to encourage people to vote “no” in a referendum on the proposal, and several members of the American Dream Coalition spoke at the event. Despite being outspent $1,600,000 to $25,000 by the business community and opposed by the political establishment, the Tea Party won, and funding for the light-rail line was defeated.

Having won against overwhelming odds, the Tampa Tea Party activists turned their attention to Florida’s proposed HSR boondoggle. During the 2010 campaign, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott expressed skepticism about the HSR plan and promised a thorough review of it if elected. Scott was elected and did conduct the review, which was influenced by — and several times quoted — the Reason Foundations’s analysis. At the same time, the Hillsborough County Tea Party team, joined by allies throughout the state and supported by the think tanks, went to work opposing the project. In the process, they met with media, elected officials, and the new governor. By late February, they had convinced enough of those in need of convincing, and the project seemed dead.

But not quite. President Obama’s refusal to let go of this scheme, and his ability to expend vast sums of taxpayer dollars to keep it alive, allowed it to flounder along for a week or two after the court’s ruling as his aides tried to circumvent the decision. In the end, the Florida project died, and with the California HSR project unlikely to be built because of high costs and tight budgets, all that is left of the Obama rail plan is an effort to increase spending on Amtrak.  

The success of this effort illustrates how a small number of dedicated people with limited money but lots of energy and commitment can take on powerful forces and bring them to heel. As the Miami Herald noted, Governor Scott “said he made the decision based on a verbal review of the ridership study, as well as documents provided by the libertarian Reason Foundation and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.” Importantly, the majority in Congress agrees: The House Budget Resolution for FY2012 states that “the threat of large, endless subsidies is precisely the reason governors across the country are rejecting federally-funded high-speed rail projects. This budget eliminates these projects which have failed numerous and clear cost-benefit analyses.”

Ronald D. Utt is the Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.

About the Author

Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D. Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow

Related Issues: Transportation

First appeared in National Review Online