In his State of the Union address, President Obama compared high-speed rail to the 19th-century transcontinental railroads as parallel examples of American innovation. I fear he may be right.
For the country as a whole, the Pacific Railway Act of 1864 and subsequent legislation subsidizing the transcontinental railroads — the lines that crossed the continent from the 98th meridian to the Pacific Coast — were the worst laws money could buy. By encouraging dumb growth, those laws sacrificed public good for private gain, and Americans came to regret it.
It is not that either transcontinental railroads or high-speed railroads are always bad ideas. A compelling case can be made for high-speed rail between Boston and Washington, for example, but the administration proposes building high-speed lines in places where there is no demonstrated demand. In California, construction of the new high-speed rail line from San Francisco to San Diego will begin with a line from Borden to Corcoran in California’s Central Valley. It is already being derided as the train to nowhere. The reduction of federal subsidies has not stopped the project, which now threatens to become a forlorn monument to hubris.
Proponents of the transcontinental railroads promised all kinds of benefits they did not deliver. They claimed that the railroads were needed to save the Union, but the Union was already saved before the first line was completed. The best Western farmlands would have been settled without the railroads; their impact on other lands was often environmentally disastrous. For three decades California commodities could move more cheaply, and virtually as quickly, by sea. The subsidies the railroads received enriched contractors and financiers, but nearly all the railroads went into receivership, some multiple times; the government rescued others. ...
After 1872, the country turned against the subsidizing of large corporations. It was a little late. Fraud and failure left a legacy that would lead to four decades of government attempts to get back what had so carelessly been given away. In the 1890s, Congress was still trying to recover money from the Pacific Railway.
Yet here we are again. The Obama administration proposed a substantial subsidy, $53 billion over six years, to induce investors to take on risk that they are otherwise unwilling to assume.
--Stanford history professor Richard White, NYT, on the curse of not knowing history striking