High-speed rail service didn’t pick up any speed in a debate Friday among the candidates for Missouri governor.
I was among a panel of journalists asking questions of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, Republican Dave Spence and Libertarian Jim Higgins in Columbia at the Missouri Press Association’s annual gathering. For the record, the high-speed rail question was among several I had prepared, but it was down the list and I didn’t think time would allow it. We did get to jobs and the economy, the tobacco tax, Medicaid, management of the Missouri River and several questions on education. Transportation also had come up – broadly, how do we pay for rising needs, such as rebuilding I-70? – so the rail question seemed to fit and seemed like a little change of pace.
Long-range plans call for some form of high-speed rail along the Amtrak line that connects Kansas City to St. Louis, service that currently includes stops in Independence, Lee’s Summit and six other cities. Missouri is still in the planning, talking and hoping stage.
So the question to the candidates: High-speed rail is coming to the Midwest. Illinois is building the spine as we speak – Chicago to St. Louis. Should Missouri more aggressively pursue its options?
Spence was the most direct: “I think it sounds great in concept, but who’s going to pay for it? ... I don’t think the taxpayer wants to pay for it.”
That’s a fairly straight answer, and it echoes a frequently heard sentiment – although it overlooks the fact that taxpayers already pour massive amounts of money into roads and bridges, airports and even dredging rivers, all of which are public subsidies to shipping companies and airlines just as much as putting money in Amtrak is. The real question is: Which subsidies get priority?
Spence did say one intriguing thing. He had defended Missouri’s roads as being “in decent shape” and said its interstates “are probably past their warranties, but they’re OK.” Again, money. Rebuilding I-70 from St. Louis to Kansas City has been pegged at $1 billion. For some perspective, the state’s entire annual budget is around $23 billion. So, Spence asked, do we rebuild I-70 or start high-speed rail? Well, those two things could be “in the mix” if and when the state gets to that discussion, he said.
Higgins took a standard Libertarian stance, that is, a dim view of any subsidies, even saying the state “overdid it on the highways.” He wants to let the market decide. “Supply and demand is a powerful thing,” he said.
Gov. Nixon has been keen to talk about embracing emerging industries such as high-tech life sciences, but he was more cautious about this new thing chugging over the horizon. The state needs to ready, he said, when high-speed rail’s moment arrives. He stressed the importance of rail freight service and the need to make Amtrak service dependable (it has made strides). He even got down to an important detail such as the second Osage River bridge for the Union Pacific line that Amtrak uses in its cross-state service, removing a key bottleneck. “We have worked to improve that system,” he said.
But he had a chance – all three had a chance – to say, hey, this is how far along I’d like to see that process come in the next four years. They could have made the case, a pretty fair case, for how it would lead to broader economic development and make doing business easier. None did. To be fair, jobs, Medicaid, roads, schools and colleges, and whatever other crises Jefferson City might dream up figure to tie up most of the governor’s time and most of the state’s money. Maybe when those 110-mph trains start rolling between Chicago and St. Louis – short test runs start in a week – it will begin to be a little more real and a little more urgent.