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Bill Virgin: Right for us, wrong for them

Are high-speed rail projects wasteful boondoggles or attractive transportation investments?

Yes.

Were the governors of Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin right to reject billions of dollars in spending for high-speed rail, and is Washington right to seek money for its portion of the Vancouver, B.C.-Seattle-Portland-Eugene corridor?

Yup.

Those are not contradictory viewpoints. They’re essential in understanding how the federal government should cut its spending, and why federal budgeting is so screwed up.

The recently elected governors in three states canceled high-speed rail projects, citing the huge price tags to build and the endless subsidies to operate them, not to mention the lack of any real need for them.

Advocates of high-speed rail, citing similar networks in Europe and Japan, tout the jobs that will be created and the need for alternatives to highway and air transportation.

Your columnist has some specific perspective on this issue, both as the current editor of a newsletter covering rail topics, and as a former resident of the great state of Ohio.

Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati was never a significant rail-transport corridor. It is served by a perfectly good transportation alternative – Interstate 71. Even in the era of the double-nickel speed limit, Columbus was two hours from Cincy, just a little more than that from the Mistake on the Lake.

Washington, meanwhile, has said it will take whatever those other states don’t want and apply it to its rail projects.

Well, of course it would say that, but in this case there’s rational reason for doing so. In the Pacific Northwest, we’re talking about an existing and congested rail corridor, especially Seattle-to-Portland, what with BNSF Railway, Union Pacific, Amtrak and Sound Transit competing for space on all or portions of it.

Anyone who has ridden that corridor has experienced slow-speed sections and other snarls. Just giving trains room to get out of one another’s way would improve speeds considerably, for passengers and for freight (a topic of interest to ports such as Tacoma). To the extent government should be spending on such projects at all (and that’s a “conversation” also worth having), spending money on these projects is a much more attractive proposition than gold-plated high-speed rail lines.

So why don’t we just spend where it makes sense and not where it doesn’t?

Because politically we can’t, or won’t. High-speed rail is emblematic of a much larger governmental debacle.

High-speed rail works in a few applications – population-dense corridors of limited geographic length or breadth. For the United States, that means the Northeast (Boston to Washington) – and maybe the Northwest.

But instead of selecting a few appropriately focused projects for spending, the projects themselves and the lists of such expenditures are bloated to ensure that everybody gets some pork, like a child’s birthday party in which all of the attendees have to come away with some goodie. Otherwise, someone will squawk.

Transportation projects are hardly the only offender. Much of what’s spent on equipment for the military is done so for reasons only tangentially connected with national defense.

If the governor of Washington really wants to improve rail transportation in this region and reduce budget deficits, she should go ahead with her requests for improvements to the Northwest rail corridor. But in solidarity with her fellow governors and in keeping with the austerity of the times, she also should pick another project for which this state is slated to get cash, and say, “We don’t need this and can’t afford it. The feds should keep the money.”

Don’t hold your breath waiting for that happy day. Blue-in-the-face is not a good look for you.

Bill Virgin’s column on business and economics appears Sunday. He is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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