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Post Partisan
Posted at 05:15 PM ET, 09/13/2011

Fast track to nowhere


Already burdened with debt and corruption, China’s high-speed rail program descended into crisis when two bullet trains collided in July, killing more than three dozen people. As angry Chinese demanded accountability, Beijing announced that it was suspending approvals of new lines. Trains were ordered to slow down on existing tracks. Once a source of national pride, China’s flawed, grandiose high-speed rail network is becoming a symbol of the Communist government’s indifference to its people’s true needs.

Yet President Obama doesn’t seem to be keeping up with these events. He’s still envious of China’s achievements. His new jobs bill seeks $4 billion for high-speed rail, in fulfillment of this ringing passage from his September 8 speech to a joint session of Congress: “Building a world-class transportation system is part of what made us a economic superpower. And now we’re going to sit back and watch China build newer airports and faster railroads? At a time when millions of unemployed construction workers could build them right here in America?”

It’s a bit odd that the president wants simultaneous investment in air transport and high-speed rail, since they are competing modes of travel. But his invidious comparison between U.S. and Chinese airport-building is as spurious as his effort to shame us into imitating Chinese high-speed rail.

Naturally China’s airports will be “newer”than ours -- for the simple reason that its aviation system is still so backward compared to ours. In 2009, China had a grand total of 166 civilian airports to serve a population of more than a billion people. Apparently, it hopes to have more than 200 built by 2015.

The United States, with less than a third of China’s population — has about 600 airports certified to serve commercial aircraft with nine or more seats.

By the way, a recent national auditor’s report in China found lots of financial and environmental irregularities in airport construction, too.

And lest you think this is just my hobby horse, here’s another memo the Obama administration didn’t get, from Kevin Drum of the certifiably progressive Mother Jones:

So how is California's fabulous high-speed rail project between LA and San Francisco going? You know, the one approved by California's fabulous voters as part of California's fabulous initiative process. Well, a new estimate for the nice, easy part between Merced and Bakersfield puts the cost at $10-$14 billion, up from earlier estimates of $6.8 billion made a mere three years ago...
Look, I'm sorry, HSR lovers. I love me some HSR, too, but this project is just a fantastic boondoggle. It didn't even make sense with the original cost estimates, and it's now plain that it's going to cost three or four times more than that. What's more, the ridership estimates are still fantasies, and it won't be able to compete with air travel without large, permanent subsidies. This is just too much money to spend on something this dumb. It's the kind of thing that could set back HSR for decades. Sacramento needs to pull the plug on this, and they need to pull it now. We have way better uses for this dough.

The California project would be a likely recipient of the money set aside for high-speed rail in Obama’s jobs bill. But Drum is right: Surely there are more cost-effective ways to employ idle construction workers. I really wish Obama would abandon his high-speed rail fetish -- which is what he would do if he really did make economic policy according to facts and evidence.

By  |  05:15 PM ET, 09/13/2011

 
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