The people who crunch the data—the people who are cited by everyone from Will to Walker—don't buy it.
"I've heard someone say, 'Well, Tampa-Orlando might not make sense today, but what about when gas goes to $8?'" says Wendell Cox. "If everyone wanted to go on it, there wouldn't be enough room! If gas goes to $8, it's still going to be more expensive to take the train than to drive. If gas prices double, I bet you'll see huge increases in fuel efficiency within two years."
Leaving aside the apparent contradiction—first rail doesn't make sense because no one would ride it, then it doesn't make sense because too many people would want to ride it—Cox's point is the conservatives' second play in their anti-rail argument: the cultural case against rail. Rail can't work because people don't want to ride it. Liberals want to fund rail because they want to change behavior.
"A lot of this has to do with Euro-envy," says Cox. "People like to talk about how much better Europe is. I don't see that their quality of life is better in Europe. The fact is that we live in a dispersed society, and there's no set of circumstances where people are going to leave cars and take rail transportation."
O'Toole also cited Euro-envy as a big motivation for train boosters. It was not a coincidence that the first sizable high-speed rail projects were set to connect Disneyland and Las Vegas, and to connect Tampa and Orlando: Disney is popular with European and American tourists.
"The plan, again and again, seems to be: Get a cheap proposal, get people to buy in, then get to the point where you can't stop spending," says O'Toole. "The goal in Florida, for example, was to build high-speed rail really fast. People will ride it. People will say, 'Woohoo! I want this in my state!' And since the federal government will fund most of the cost we'll have demand for it in Texas, demand for it in Iowa, and so on. Nobody will think about cost until it's too late."
He's certainly right that rail advocates want rail to take off. If or when it does, the rail lines will be able to run more on fares than on subsidies. And conservatives are certainly right that if the rail advocates get their way, they're going to change personal behavior. But that's what most government policy aims to do. Taxes are cut or raised, subsidies offered or canceled, laws passed or repealed, in the hopes that it will change behavior.
And this brings us to the last time conservatives took a look at upping rail funding. Before and after 9/11, George Will was talking up rail as a way to take more people off planes and make America less vulnerable to terrorists. That argument has more or less vanished. Why? "It helped that somebody bombed a train in Spain," says O'Toole. "If you concentrate people in one vehicle, then the vehicle is vulnerable. You concentrate society, and it's vulnerable. So maybe it's not a good thing to concentrate people."