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Who Cares What Ideology Drives the High-Speed Train?

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

In Texas, a private company wants to build a bullet train joining Dallas and Houston. In California, the state is raising its own billions to create a very fast ride between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Two very different ways to fund high-speed rail, but they have one thing in common. They bypass the thousand-car pileup that is Washington politics.

Perhaps it's time for fans of high-speed rail to let some air into their thought box. Perhaps they should stop looking to Washington for direction and money. There are several routes to this destination, and who cares which ideology drives the train?

The drawbacks in counting on federal help for this undertaking are several. One is that most Republicans in Congress remain philosophically opposed to writing checks for such infrastructure. Another snag has been the Obama administration's failure to smartly guide the $11 billion already committed to the cause since 2009.

That money has reportedly been spent hither and yon, not focused on those densely populated regions where high-speed rail makes the most sense. In the Northeast corridor -- where super-expensive Acela trains sell out, despite not being super-fast -- scant high-speed money has arrived.

California Gov. Jerry Brown is now thinking, "The heck with Washington." He says that obtaining additional money to build the rail line is "well within the capability of the state of California."

Yes, it can. In June, the Democratic Legislature agreed to fund the project out of the cap-and-trade program (for curbing carbon emissions). And in other good news, an appellate court recently overturned an earlier, lower court ruling forbidding California to sell $9 billion worth of state bonds for the project.

The main obstacle driving Brown away from a larger federal role has been a homegrown congressman -- the new Republican majority leader, Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield. McCarthy has made it his sacred mission to block any more federal money for the California project.

"Republicans under Mr. McCarthy," Brown said dismissively, "have decided that it's better to treat high-speed rail as a political football than as a great civic opportunity."

Brown continues to push the rail plan -- and in the face of rising costs, raining lawsuits and tiring public opinion. Good for him. That's the nature of doing big things. The Golden Gate Bridge was not built without pain.

In Texas, a company called Texas Central Railway envisions high-speed trains flying at over 200 mph between Houston and Dallas. We're talking a 240-mile trip in less than 90 minutes. (The mostly flat landscape should help.) Lines could be extended to San Antonio and Austin in the future.

And -- music to the ears of most Texans -- the project is not being subsidized by either the state or the feds.

"We are a private company, employing a market-led approach," Texas Central's website says, employing all the right words. "Unlike other high-speed rail projects, we are not backed by public funds or your taxpayer dollars."

The project would have major Japanese input in both investors and technology. Japan does know all about high-speed rail. And it can't be coincidental that the company's senior adviser, Tom Schieffer, is a former U.S. ambassador to Japan.

The shared virtue of both the Texas and the California approaches is that the backers don't have to cut deals with powerful congressmen from sparsely populated districts, places not suitable for high-speed rail. Nor must they court Washington politicians hostile to public transportation.

Would a transcontinental high-speed rail system be a neat thing? Sure. But that's not going to happen now. These two projects -- despite the major difference in their style of funding -- could be a start.

Is this any way to run a railroad? Yes and yes.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

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