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Democrats Sound Desperate Note on Commuter Rail Spending

Trump's infrastructure plans would leave little money for their beloved boondoggles.

Maria CantwellNational Park Service / FlickrAs the Trump administration looks to make America great again with $1 trillion in infrastructure investments, elected officials, lobbyists and industries are positioning for the largesse.

Congressional Democrats have been fretting that with President Trump's preference for revenue generating projects, many of their favorite projects will lose out on the pork to which they have become accustomed.

This could be a particular problem for high-speed and light-rail projects across the country. Far more cost effective transportation options already exist, Randal O'Toole, a longtime critic of of publicly subsidized rail boondoggles, said. Trump, he said, understands this reality and will forego throwing money at such projects.

"It's a huge waste of money," O'Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, said. "We have this new invention called the jet plane that can go twice as fast as any high speed rail car, and carries more people"

Realizing their fix, Democrats have been taking every opportunity to stump for direct federal spending on infrastructure.

Sens. Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D–N.J.), and Menendez (D–N.J.) on Wednesday sent a letter to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao asking her to "to consider the urgent need for major investments in our nation's rail and transit infrastructure."

These lawmakers have been particularly concerned about the fate of the Gateway Program—introduced in 2011 by Menendez—that would add new rail track and tunnels under the Hudson River for about $24 billion.

Given the project's exclusive focus on investing in the future of perennial loss leader, Amtrak, and commuter rail service, it is questionable whether funds would materialize under a Trump plan.

The senators sound a little desperate, pleading for Chao to visit the site of the project "prior to unveiling the Trump Administration's $1 trillion infrastructure proposal," perhaps hoping she might come to some divine revelation on "the urgent need for federal investments in advancing the Gateway Project."

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D–Wash.) is another desperate sounding pork hunter. Trump's "skinny budget" hacks out a $1.2 billion grant for a long-planned light rail line in her state, to say nothing of the $54 billion light rail expansion Seattle-area voters approved in 2016,

Cantwell hopes the project can claim as much as $4 billion in federal grants for a project that will get just 3 percent of its $54 billion cost from rider fares. Hardly a fit for an infrastructure proposal focused on projects supported by user fees.

Cantwell pressed Chao during her confirmation hearing in January on how willing the Trump administration would be willing to spend direct federal dollars on rail in the Seattle area, which she says "desperately, desperately, desperately needs this infrastructure investment."

Chao was noncommittal.

Also looking for federal dollars for their high-speed dreams is Texas Central Partners.

Despite repeatedly promising state leaders their project would be entirely financed privately, the people behind the Texas Central project mobbed up with high powered D.C. lobbying firm K&L partners.

With deep links in the transit policy world, K&L lobbyists have been taking taking meetings with Chao, pitching the proposed high speed rail line between Dallas and Houston as "an ideal candidate" for the Trump infrastructure plan, the Hill reported.

Managers of this project have, up until Trump's announcement, insisted to the people of a state that flaunts its free market success that ridership will eliminate the need for subsidy.

But according to a recent Reason Foundation study (the Foundation publishes this website) ridership for the Texas line will likely be about 5 times lower than Texas Central projections. Such a rail line could not survive without taxpayer money.

Most of this rail advocacy is political theater, O'Toole said. Democrats are just "playing to their audience, who like to spend big money without having to worry about paying it back." he said. He doubts the current administration will give them any of what they want.

Trump's infrastructure, O'Toole said, is more correctly set on projects that support cars and trucks. In other words, the way real people want to travel.

"Cars take them to where they want to go," he said, "not to a station that might be miles away from where they want to go."

Photo Credit: National Park Service / Flickr

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  • Citizen X - #6||

    MUH 19th CENTURY TECHNOLOGY

  • Chip Your Pets||

    Automobiles are 19th century technology too.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    First decade of the 19th century v. last decade of the 19th century, then.

  • Chip Your Pets||

    Cherry pick that data!

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Thanks for ruining a tossed-off joke, you nerd.

  • Crusty Juggler aka "Chad"||

    "It's a huge waste of money,", O'Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, said. "We have this new invention called the jet plane that can go twice as fast as any high speed rail car, and carries more people"

    That has little to do with this:

    These lawmakers have been particularly concerned about the fate of the Gateway Program—introduced in 2011 by Menendez—that would add new rail track and tunnels under the Hudson River for about $24 billion.
  • Hugh Akston||

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Reminds me of a cocktail recipe. The Sully: two hits of Grey Goose and a splash of water.

  • BYODB||

    That was a surprisingly great movie.

  • Brandybuck||

    I must order that next time I'm at a classy bar.

  • the other other alan||

    Between, NJ Transit, Amtrak and PATH, well over 500,000 commuters enter NYC under the Hudson River via rail every day. The Port Authority Bus Terminal is far over capacity as well. The recent, numerous rail-related failures are directly attributable to Amtrak's failure to properly maintain the tracks. What any of this has to do with high-speed trains to nowhere is beyond me

  • Chip Your Pets||

    "It's a huge waste of money,", O'Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, said. "We have this new invention called the jet plane that can go twice as fast as any high speed rail car, and carries more people"

    This statement is stupid on so many levels.

    Yes, an individual train car has fewer people in it than a jumbo jet, but the entire train can fit roughly the same number.

    Also, he's not taking into account the relative energy expenditures of the two modes of travel.

    If the gold standards for whether a mode of transportation is good or not are passenger capacity and speed, he should be calling for a complete moratorium on automobile infrastructure spending, as that's by far the slowest and lowest capacity type (as well as being the least efficient and most dangerous by far).

  • BYODB||


    "If the gold standards for whether a mode of transportation is good or not are passenger capacity and speed..."

    That's not the standard here, I don't think.

    Admittedly O'Toole's point isn't a particularly good one with the jet comment considering you can just drive across on a bridge or ferry so I see where you're coming from. I think New York in particular just loathes personal vehicles due to congestion. With their density, it's perhaps one of the few places in the United States where public transit makes some kind of sense, but it's still going to be congested. There's no getting around that with their population in NYC.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    The funny thing nobody talks about are crowded roadways moving to crowded airports and train stations. I argue that the USA is entering excessive population densities in areas people want to live. Maybe ~330M people in America is the number we should stay at for awhile. Cheap Potable water is already becoming an issue in various regions of the USA because of the population.

    Cars offer the greatest flexibility for travel. Planes are great for long distance travel. Trains are pretty good for moving lots of commercial goods along with ships. Regional trains sort of work for getting people in and out of geography restricted cities like New York and San Francisco.

    I love trains too but long distance train travel is not cost effective but more nostalgia than anything. Kind of like taking a ship across the Atlantic- nostalgia.

  • BYODB||

    The markets will take care of that on their own since property values can be expected to go up the denser the population.

    This is literally why there are suburbs.

    "Maybe ~330M people in America is the number we should stay at for awhile."

    Cool story. So who gets forcibly sterilized? I'm guessing it will be the 'undesirables' right? Not only that, but literally the entire worlds population could easily fit within Texas. Comfortably, I might add. You rascally eugenics / population bomb folks crack me up.

  • damikesc||

    Who gets sterilized?

    Chelsea Clinton.

    Two generations of grifters are enough.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Funny you would jump to government harming people.

    The markets don't work because of government interference. Property rent controls, limits on private business ventures to make suburbs more accessible to cities, etc are why expensive cities do not work as you describe.

    I just meant cutting way back on immigration and welfare so old people pay to stay alive or finally die and let the American birth rate of 59.6 babies per 1000 women dictate where our population is. Since 2016 the birth rate has declined, so less and less people in the USA- naturally. In other words, no eugenics, sterilization or any of your other nonsense that you Nanny-State types like.

    "...literally the entire worlds population could easily fit within Texas. Comfortably, I might add." This is complete BS and you know it.

  • BYODB||


    "...literally the entire worlds population could easily fit within Texas. Comfortably, I might add." This is complete BS and you know it.

    Actually, no, it isn't. It's the absolute bonafide truth if you bothered to research your easily debunked opinions at all. Idiots don't seem to realize how huge the Earth is, and sadly you are apparently an idiot.

    It's also pretty amusing that you call me the statist when you're the only implying that someone would need to control the population of the United States. I can see where your argument on birth rates might apply, but that would be a natural thing that each individual would decide. It's a good argument, in my opinion, but I haven't looked at the data on if population would actually go down if immigration was halted entirely. Mostly because I don't care.

    Either way, you should have led with that instead of clutching your pearls on how there are too many people on the Earth without knowing anything about the subject.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    I remember now. You spout nonsense. That's your thing. Someone even address the nonsense about fitting everyone into Texas because knuckleheads use that as a talking point.
    Nonsense Texas assertion
    33 x 33 ft for all 6.8 Billion people in 2010. The area of Texas is about 262,000 mi2. There are 7.4 Billion people now and you have to subtract bodies of water in Texas.

    If you could read, it would be evident that I never advocated government control of population. Since government control is your thing, I am not sure why you are here on this Libertarian-ish website.

    Here's to you pulling those pearls out of your ass like your spinning what other people say.

  • BYODB||

    So from your example:


    Some like to assert that everybody on Earth could be fit into the State of Texas, using logic as follows. The area of Texas is about 262,000 mi2. Dividing this figure by the current human population of 6.8 billion leaves each person with about 1000 square feet...

    Ok, now what is the average size of an apartment in Manhattan?


    "The average size of a Manhattan apartment...was essentially unchanged at 1,302 square feet..."

    *facepalm*

    And, for the record, I've lived in an apartment smaller than 1000 sq. feet before. For an individual it's actually not too terrible. Perhaps 'comfortable' is a stretch, I will definitely concede that point. But that is also a figure for every man, woman, and child on Earth living in their own apartment in a single state, in a single country, on a single continent.

  • BYODB||

    Oh, and as a bonus, the average size of an apartment in Tokyo, Japan is 980 Sq. Ft.

    It's an awful shame everyone in Tokyo is dead from overpopulation and water shortages I suppose.

  • BYODB||

    Final reply, because I think we both assumed things about the other:

    If you could read, it would be evident that I never advocated government control of population. Since government control is your thing, I am not sure why you are here on this Libertarian-ish website.

    I tried to explain that the reason I thought you were talking about population control was because you specifically said you think the population of the United States should stay at 'x'. I assume that your average person wont choose to stop themselves from reproducing based on your desire to keep the population static, since that would be irrational.

    Therefore the most likely remaining scenario is forced population control with the stated goal of maintaining a static population number.

    If you don't want people to assume things about your argument, make your argument clearer. I
    apologize if I hurt your feelings on this one, but the only people I know of that make population control arguments are the groups I cited. I have literally never heard a single person advocate for a spontaneously static population number. Until now, apparently.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    I am glad you conceded that point about "comfortable". Can you pack all 7.4 Billion into the landmass of Texas? Simple math says yes.

    All the hyperbole about government controlling population aside- If you are having a discussion about quality of life and population, what is okay for a NY City resident might not be okay for a rural person in Montana. I was in the Navy, so packing a bunch of people in a small area is not new to me but I will never live in some tiny apartment again. I also think its a waste of time to have so many people on the roads that getting 20 miles take over an hour.

    American quality of life relating to population involves what we want as Americans. What works for the Japanese clearly does not work for Americans. Japanese are less individualists than Americans, partly because of their need to tolerate close quarters with other Japanese.

    What is the magic number for population in America: 1 Billion? 500M? 2 Billion? 330M
    I don't argue that there is a magic number nor should the government do anything besides what the Constitution enumerates.

    Is there a benefit to allowing everyone to come to the USA? No. It just puts more people on the roads, at the stores, at the airports, and at the train stations. BTW: Cheap clean water is one of the reasons that the USA has been so successful. You can make all the jokes you want about more people using more water but not planning for future water use is a mistake that cost taxpayers dearly.

  • damikesc||

    When a plane can get you there in 1/2 the time for a lot less money, it's hard to justify rail.

    Mind you, I love trains. They are just utterly worthless for transportation of people. Wish it weren't the case, tho.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    You know who else was desperate to use trains to move people?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Dagny Taggart?

  • Chip Your Pets||

    Robert E Lee

  • Crusty Juggler aka "Chad"||

    E.H. Harriman?

  • Robert||

    The Toronto Argonauts? (See Wikipedia's entry on Lionel Conacher.)

  • Rebel Scum||

    Stalin? No, no, it's always Hitler.

  • Robbzilla||

    Hitler?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Himmler, Eichmann, and Heydrich?

  • Glide||

    Tom Hanks in The Polar Express?

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    Hogwarts?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Even Hitler didn't stoop so low as to make his people ride trains.

  • BYODB||

    Fun Fact:


    One of the associations lobby groups have been advertising on the radio here in Dallas about Trump cutting rail, and how every billion dollars spent on light rail creates 50000 jobs. They also love to talk about it as an 'investment'.


    Knowing what I know about public transit, I have to laugh every time I hear it. Amusingly, they advertise during the Mark Levin show which is an extra WTF factor.

  • BYODB||

    Oh, and the light rail system here in Dallas is pretty shitty. Most of the lines don't connect and none of the stops are particularly useful. At least not to me. Every time I see one of their cars go by on my drive to work I see virtually no one riding them either.

    At least you can take the DART system to the County Hospital, I guess. That's basically the only 'good' thing about it, and I'm pretty sure that isn't worth a few billion dollars.

  • Agile Cyborg||

    Five more earths populated with apathetic rich humans couldn't supply the projectile spending of bureaucrats and their hand-jobbing corporate team members.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    One of the major reasons I could never get into SIM CITY was that it was soon in favor of commuter rail projects. You pretty much couldn't build a successful city without them, whereas I knew from experience that light rail projects killed neighborhoods, and never ever reached projected ridership numbers.

    A pox on all rail fetishists and their expensive and useless boondoggles.

  • BYODB||

    Amusingly, if I recall correctly, in Sim City 2000 if you cut even one dollar from Transportation your city pretty much went to shit instantly. It was 100% funding or fuck you.

  • Glide||

    I got a free copy of SimCity 2000 on Origin a while back. I haven't given it a shot yet but I'll definitely have to observe this phenomenon myself when I do.

  • Brandybuck||

    Because all the Sims are Democrats. Let them whine for a year or two and and stuff will settle down. The actual simulation is about getting sims to their destination efficiently. if you can manage that with a network of roads, go for it and ignore their whining. This isn't a democracy and they can't vote you out.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    On the other hand, especially in the later versions of the game, trying to build commuter rail without a pretty dense population could wreck your shit. I installed a comprehensive light rail network in a medium-sized city in SimCity 4 and it bankrupted me with a quickness.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    So, the programmers grew up and gained some experience with government...

  • albo||

    Moving roadways. The roads must roll!

  • Brandybuck||

    Fixing roads instead of new high speed rails that no one will use? Madness!

  • DRM||

    At a first glance, genuinely high-speed rail (205 MPH), on track unshared with cargo, on an "airport-to-airport"-like basis (no intermediate stops), might actually be made to work economically on a Dallas-Houston line. If only because you could save time on the security end to neutralize the speed difference (since a train, unlike a plane, can't be turned into a jihadi-guided missile) and give the passengers a more comfortable ride (since you don't have airplane weight dependence).

    Obviously, the devil is in what sort of ridership it would have, which is where pretty much the entire difference between the Texas Central and Reason Foundation estimates sits. But cheaper, more comfortable, and overall-trip-speed-competitive with airplanes isn't a horrible place to start looking for riders, and the route is the one that Southwest was built on.

  • Hunthjof||

    Cantwell pressed Chao during her confirmation hearing in January on how willing the Trump administration would be willing to spend direct federal dollars on rail in the Seattle area, which she says " she desperately, desperately, desperately needs to payoff the public employee unions and other special interests and cronies who contribute handsomely to my campaign"

    Corrected to what she really meant.

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