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Denham: High-Speed Rail an Example of Runaway Government Spending

Over the years, many proposals have been offered to bring high-speed rail to California, as it has to other parts of the country, namely the overcrowded Northeast Corridor.

With a growing population, increased fuel efficiencies and advancements in aviation, Americans are moving farther out of cities, increasing their commute to work and traveling longer distances on vacation. These factors, combined with a growing population, will lead to significant challenges for transportation planners as they seek to relieve congestion and improve travel time and efficiency.

In 1996, my state created the California High-Speed Rail Authority to develop an intercity train system that can operate at speeds of 200 mph or faster to connect major metropolitan areas of California and provide service between Northern California and Southern California. Fifteen years later, the state and federal governments have combined to spend, obligate and authorize more than $10 billion toward developing a viable high-speed corridor in California, and we are no closer today than we were 15 years ago.

Environmental regulations, state bureaucracies and poor planning have left high-speed rail officials scrambling to spend money as quickly as it comes in the door in the hopes that beginning the project will compel legislators to continue to spend money our nation simply does not have.

Conspicuously missing from the process has been private investment. Without the involvement of private capital, we will never be able to effectively leverage public investment or achieve the level of efficiencies needed to truly develop a rail system that travels faster than 200 mph.

As we all know, Amtrak operates its Acela Express line on the East Coast in the Northeast Corridor, the busiest traffic corridor in the country. At its fastest, Acela Express averages speeds of less than 90 mph, and the cost of a ticket to ride is comparable to a flight taking less time.

Amtrak’s vision in the Northeast Corridor will cost a staggering $117 billion and drag this project out for 30 years. Likewise, the California High-Speed Rail Authority is now managing a project expected to cost more than $60 billion. Where is this money going to come from?

Without a viable plan that includes private-sector leverage, expertise and investment, high-speed rail has no future in this country. In a time of great fiscal peril, we cannot afford to create another Amtrak that requires $1 billion a year in taxpayer subsidies.

Japan introduced the world’s first high-speed rail service, the Shinkansen, in 1964. Because of increasing debt, the rail system was privatized in 1987. Now, each private regional operator pays the government a leasing fee for access to the line, which is then used to invest in new infrastructure.

Since privatization, annual ridership on the original line from Tokyo to Osaka has risen from 102 million in 1988 to 138 million in 2010, with a high of 151 million in 2008. That line also has seen reduced travel times from four hours in 1964 to two hours and 25 minutes. This is over a 320-mile line. By comparison, the Northeast Corridor stretches 225 miles from Washington, D.C., to New York and takes two hours and 45 minutes.

As a state Senator, I supported the concept of high-speed rail in California, and I still do now. But since its inception, planning by government officials has been severely mismanaged and has proved to be another example of runaway government spending with no results.

Voters want more leadership from their Representatives, and I do not support obligating billions of dollars to an idea we might never see in our lifetime when millions of Americans are without a job and struggling to make ends meet. In theory, high-speed rail can create jobs, reduce air pollution and relieve traffic congestion, but we cannot continue gambling on a vision when the American people are paying the price for our $14 trillion debt and demanding honesty.

What this country needs is a plan that includes adequate cost controls, the transparency Americans demand and the oversight taxpayers deserve. My hope is that high-speed rail is in California’s future, but it is irresponsible without oversight, public-private partnerships that leverage private-sector financing and ingenuity, and a coherent plan for how the money will be spent.

A purely publicly funded and publicly run system will not meet the needs of the taxpayer. We must see better planning and more creative financing in order to increase efficiencies and produce long-term transportation benefits to Americans.

Bottom line: In order to have high-speed rail in California or anywhere in the country, there must be a disciplined plan that ensures accountability for taxpayer dollars and instills confidence among private investors.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) is a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.

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