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Commentary: Missouri High-Speed rail application shows government delusions

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 21, 2011 - Did you know that the building of a high-speed rail line across Missouri will support more than 200,000 jobs? Don't believe me? Well, it is right there on page 21 of the Missouri Department of Transportation's (MoDOT) application for high-speed rail federal funding: "The construction phase is estimated to support over 208,674 direct, indirect, and induced jobs."

If you think it is ludicrous that the construction of a single rail line across central Missouri could account for 7 percent of the state's entire labor force, well, you are correct. But absurd estimates like this are typical for high-speed rail proposals. In 2008, California voters approved bonds for a high-speed rail proposal estimated to cost $43 billion. Now, before any construction has started, the actual cost is estimated at $98 billion. Like many similar projects, the price for it is so high that advocates can only generate support by intentionally underestimating the cost and downplaying the future subsidies.

But back to MoDOT. In their defense (although this hardly qualifies as a "defense"), MoDOT officials did not put much original thought into the 208,000 jobs projection. They just applied a federal transportation department formula to the estimated $8 billion final cost of the project. Never mind that the formula counts the same job multiple times, assumes that one job in transportation "induces" two jobs elsewhere, and has been thoroughly discredited.

There are other outlandish claims in the same document. On page 10, we learn that Missourians will commute to work on high-speed rail. Even though the new system will just go 110 mph at its peak (not dramatically faster than the current system); will only stop in St. Louis, Kansas City, and perhaps Jefferson City; and a trip across the state will still take 4 hours at best, Missourians will apparently use it to commute to work each day. The same line will also connect to Chicago. Other than aviophobics, find me someone in Kansas City who will take high-speed rail to Chicago -- still an 8 hour trip -- when they can fly there on Southwest Airlines for approximately the same price in 1 hour and 20 minutes?

The growing, private bus company, Megabus will take you from St. Louis to Kansas City in 4 1/2 hours, for $34. If your mission is to ensure people have safe and affordable travel options, mission accomplished. If your true mission is to spend government money in pursuit of political aims, I guess it isn't.

Missouri would be much better off sticking with its original plan to spend far less money making engineering-based upgrades to our current Amtrak system. High-speed rail is a high-cost luxury built to serve a non-existent market demand. The private sector is perfectly capable of providing affordable inter-city travel. The amount of jobs high-speed rail creates is false. St. Louis and Kansas City are not Tokyo or Paris, and the $8 billion project would require enormous annual operating subsidies in the future. This proposal is a high-speed path to fiscal disaster.

David Stokes is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute. 

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