Rail updates: HSR, commuter, and airports
There's been a lot of rail buzz in the blogosphere lately, some sparked by the Obama administration's interest in supporting high-speed rail. Harvard professor Edward Glaseser has an op-ed in the Boston Globe expressing strong skepticism:
For most workers in America’s sprawling metropolitan areas, no train is going to drop them within walking distance of their home or job. In Greater Houston, only 11.6 percent of jobs are within three miles of an area’s center and more than 55 percent of jobs are more than 10 miles away from the city center. In Chicago, almost 70 percent of employment is more than 10 miles from the city center. Even in Greater Boston, 48 percent of jobs are over 10 miles from Beacon Hill.
There is a reason why 48 percent of Amtrak’s passengers travel on only two routes: the Northeast Corridor and the Los Angeles-San Diego line. For travelers in the less-dense areas between the coasts, cars beat trains for modest distances and planes win over long hauls.
The national high-speed rail agenda is being pushed with claims that these trains will jump-start economic growth. No serious evidence supports such claims. When new transportation does affect local economies, it generally does so by moving activity from one place to another, not by creating nationwide benefits.
The case for subsidizing urban mass transit, like the MBTA, is certainly debatable, but it is much stronger than the case for subsidizing rail links between non-coastal cities.
The MBTA’s core problem is that its operating expenses have always been double its operating costs. To function, the system needs about $900 million a year in subsidies from taxes and local assessments, which works out to slightly more than $2 a trip.
Amtrak also regularly faces a $1 billion gap between revenues and expenses, including depreciation, but since Amtrak carries only 29 million passengers each year, the per-trip subsidy tops $30. (and that's for slow rail on shared existing freight tracks - imagine expensive fast rail in its own grade-separated RoW)
While urban transit helps reduce the congestion that plagues our dense metropolitan areas, the highways between our heartland cities are famous for their open lanes. Subsidizing urban public transit is modestly progressive, since public-transit commuters are twice as likely to be poor as car commuters. By contrast, intercity rail travelers are wealthier than car travelers. The environmental benefits are larger for urban mass transit; Amtrak itself only claims to be 17 percent more fuel efficient than airlines.
The problem is that while common sense requires transportation modes and spending to be targeted to the local environment, politics demands that federal programs spend everywhere. A serious high-speed rail project would forget about Texas (agreed) and focus on saving hours in the Northeast Corridor. A rational transportation program would target money to the areas that have the most congestion. A smart transportation policy would recognize the wisdom of using our existing infrastructure more efficiently, with the help of congestion pricing, rather than building more roads. Unfortunately, wisdom seems to take wing whenever politicians start envisioning the shining splendor of fast trains.
He goes into more detailed analysis on an NYT blog here. Reason supports inter-city bus over high-speed rail (bottom), while the Urbanophile is critical of Glaeser. The Antiplanner covers the feeding frenzy of states applying to the feds for HSR funds here and here, asking for $102 billion out of an $8 billion budget. And the head of BNSF says more modest 110 mph rail on existing tracks will probably not work - the max would be 90 mph, with an average around 60 mph - not very compelling.
Tyler Cowen at the high-profile Marginal Revolution economics blog is also skeptical of high-speed rail in Texas. Many of the commentors are too, citing poor cost-for-benefit, anti-pedestrian/transit weather, and the last-few-miles problem in the dispersed metros of the Texas Triangle. Hat tip to AC, who has his own incredulous comments on the America 2050 HSR plan for the country.
Getting a little more local, Christof gives an update on commuter rail for Houston. Sounds like a disconnected mess so far, but if they can directly connect it up to major job centers and have a long-term plan for moderately high-speed rail from Galveston to College Station and Austin - and keep it all affordable (a big if) - then they might be on to something.
Finally, on the ongoing debate over rail to the airports, this USA Today post on LAX rail had an interesting excerpt that matches what I've been saying about Houston for a while:
"The discussion to extend the Green Line has been ongoing for more than a decade. Many LAX travelers prefer to use non-stop buses, LAX FlyAway, that drop them off at various locations in the city."How come we don't have such a useful service? (other than the Metro express to downtown)
UPDATE: Glaeser analyzes the Houston-Dallas route and finds the costs far exceed the benefits (3 or 6 to 1). AC changes some benefit assumptions and disagrees, finding a rough 1-to-1 cost-benefit match. I think the costs are probably substantially underestimated, which would put both of their analyses even deeper in the red. Too much wiggle room in all of the numbers. Hat tip to Jessie.