Liam Julian

After a $787 billion stimulus and a $940 billion health care bill, one might think the time had come to take a vacation from profligate spending on vaporous ideas. Unfortunately, one would be wrong.

High-speed rail construction—for which President Obama initially devoted an $8 billion “down payment” (read: more on the way) from the stimulus, plus an additional $5 billion over five years—has begun in several scattered corridors across the country. But the president’s “vision for high-speed rail in America” is in fact a vision for wasting additional billions of federal and state dollars.

Sean Hannity FREE

Obama announced in January how the incipient $8 billion would be divided. The biggest winners were two high-speed rail routes, one in Florida and one in California. In Florida, a line designed to span the 80 miles between Tampa and Orlando took in $1.25 billion of federal money, and in California, a proposed system that would eventually connect Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, collected $2.3 billion of Uncle Sam’s largesse.

But the newest, inflation-adjusted estimates put the cost of building just one phase of California’s bullet-train system, between L.A. and San Francisco, at a whopping $42.6 billion. It is unclear who will pay.

In November 2008, in the midst of a massive state budget shortfall, a worldwide economic crisis, and home foreclosures galore, California voters approved Proposition 1A, a $10 billion bond measure to get their high-speed rail project started. But $10 billion is not $42.6 billion. Under what stone does the state think the remaining requisite $33 billion lies?

Under several hypothetical stones, it seems. California’s high-speed rail designers say they expect to receive about $18 billion from the federal government. Maybe. Yet Washington has donated but $2.3 billion thus far. The state also purportedly expects to receive $12 billion from private investors, but this troop of generous sugar daddies has yet to materialize.

Nonetheless, the project is moving forward. Californians, whose state’s budget gap is currently at $20 billion, might wonder how much more they will be asked to pay to get high-speed trains rolling. (Who will pay to keep the trains rolling is another problem altogether.)

Comparatively, the cost to build a Florida high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando is small—an estimated $3.2 billion. But that $3.2 billion is a total loss because nobody will ride the thing.

Liam Julian

Liam Julian, a Hoover Institution fellow, is managing editor of Policy Review.