Examiner Editorial: Rail grants show DC’s ears are still plugged 

When pollsters ask people about government, politicians and the direction of the country, a frequently expressed frustration is that officials aren’t listening to their constituents.

Signs asking, “Are you listening now?” were prominent during the celebration of Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown’s victory in the recent special election for a U.S. Senate seat.

President Barack Obama’s insistence that Congress pass his health care reform despite the opposition of a strong majority of Americans illustrates the way Washington, D.C., thumbs its nose at people beyond the Beltway.

Another example is Obama’s announcement Thursday of more than $8 billion in economic stimulus grants for 13 high-speed rail projects.

The president says these projects should be built because they will put trains capable of traveling 168 mph on routes between Anaheim and San Francisco, Tampa and Orlando, Fla., and 11 other “transportation corridors.” But the people who will have to pay for these massive spending programs have been voting against heavy rail projects for decades.

Automobiles account for 88 percent of all passenger travel in this country, and commercial airlines make up most of the rest. Commercial passenger rail lines (think Amtrak) have been money-losing propositions for so long that only continuous infusions of federal tax dollars have kept them operating.

Public administration expert Randal O’Toole told The Examiner that Obama “has effectively committed the federal government to tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars for an obsolete technology that few people will use. California’s high-speed rail plan will cost at least $45 billion to $60 billion, and the state fully expects the federal government to pick up half the cost. So this initial grant will have to be followed by at least $20 billion more.”

O’Toole also said the Florida project’s environmental impact report recently recommended against approval, and that rail is always much more expensive than going by bus or car. That means the few who use the high-speed trains will be wealthier (remember the Concorde?), so once again the middle-class taxpayer gets hit in the wallet to pay for somebody else’s ride.

There will be those, however, who are quite pleased with the projects.

As O’Toole pointed out in his book “The Best-Laid Plans,” rail projects mean big bucks for engineering and design firms, construction contractors, railcar manufacturers and a host of other transit businesses.

Does anybody doubt that these firms will eagerly show their gratitude with millions of dollars in campaign contributions to the politicians behind the projects?

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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