Richard White: Fast Train to Nowhere





Richard White, a professor of history at Stanford, is the author of the forthcoming “Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America.”

IT is hard for liberals like me to find good news in the latest agreement to cut the federal budget, but there is at least one silver lining: subsidies for high-speed rail have been sharply reduced. Why is this good news?

In his State of the Union address, President Obama compared high-speed rail to the 19th-century transcontinental railroads as parallel examples of American innovation. I fear he may be right.

For the country as a whole, the Pacific Railway Act of 1864 and subsequent legislation subsidizing the transcontinental railroads — the lines that crossed the continent from the 98th meridian to the Pacific Coast — were the worst laws money could buy. By encouraging dumb growth, those laws sacrificed public good for private gain, and Americans came to regret it.

It is not that either transcontinental railroads or high-speed railroads are always bad ideas. A compelling case can be made for high-speed rail between Boston and Washington, for example, but the administration proposes building high-speed lines in places where there is no demonstrated demand. In California, construction of the new high-speed rail line from San Francisco to San Diego will begin with a line from Borden to Corcoran in California’s Central Valley. It is already being derided as the train to nowhere. The reduction of federal subsidies has not stopped the project, which now threatens to become a forlorn monument to hubris....



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