A telling change of heart

US transportation and infrastructure chief Bill Shuster has backed off high-speed rail, and so has Capitol Hill

Bill Shuster is a staunch proponent of privatising surface transportation infrastructure. His record, from the time when he became a US congressman in 2001, is proof. In 2011, in fact, he backed a controversial bill to monetise publicly funded train company Amtrak.

But even if his stance on privatising Amtrak has remained for the most part steadfast, his high-speed rail (HSR) agenda has wavered.

Travelling to New York for a recent legislative field hearing of the US House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure – a committee he heads up – Shuster laid out his rationale for the Northeast Corridor (NEC) as a ‘brownfield’ public-private partnership (PPP or P3).

However, his erstwhile appeal to use private capital to add HSR to the Corridor – voiced in 2011 – was now muted.

“High-speed rail, while great in theory, is not realistic,” said Shuster, labeling HSR “pie-in-the-sky”.

His dig at HSR was in effect a slap-in-the-face to Bill Shuster circa 2011: the Bill Shuster who deemed the US Northeast ground zero for HSR in America; and who teamed with his mentor John Mica to monetise NEC rail service Amtrak in a bill packaged to include HSR. 

For Bill Shuster in 2013, private capital and public infrastructure should still blend, but “state-of-good-repair” for the Corridor ought to trump high-speed innovation.

Suffice it to say, if Shuster is guilty of pulling a U-turn on HSR, he has plenty of company in federal government. His political party, meanwhile, has adopted a hardline approach.

“I believe the $6 billion that was given to the California High Speed Rail Authority could be better spent,” Congressman Jeff Denham, a Republican on the Committee, said at the hearing.

Given its scope, the 800-mile California High Speed Rail project has been widely considered a bellwether for the future of HSR in the US.

But in 2013, the long-gestating ‘mega-project’ has gone from bellwether to wake-up call. The envisioned California High Speed Rail system has proved unpopular, unwieldy and unattractive to private capital. Legal wrangling over the project has been ever-present; political support has been wishy-washy.

More troubling is the unanswered question of who would ride the rail. Let alone who could affordto ride the rail.

To argue for the NEC, “the most highly trafficked corridor in the country,” as Denham noted, as a better candidate for HSR, would be to miss the point. President Barack Obama has been careful to argue for credible, relevant investment in infrastructure. ‘A Partnership to Rebuild America,’ or ‘Fix-It-First’ might sound bold, but the context is immediate and free of over-promise or unknown financial sacrifice.

Pick whatever reason is suitable, but Washington has fallen out of love with HSR. So be it. A politician like Bill Shuster can be forgiven for flip-flopping, but a bad HSR project can doom a region.