Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Arguments building against high-speed rail plan

Two items this week build the growing pushback against the administration's plan for a national network of high-speed rail lines.  The first is from Reason's respected transportation analyst Robert Poole in his Surface Transportation Innovations newsletter.  After describing negative op-eds in the Washington Post and news analysis in the NY Times - and dissecting a fluffy response by the DOT Secretary - he gets to the really devastating stuff:
An especially useful report has crossed some people's screens in recent weeks. "High-Speed Rail: Lessons for Policy-Makers from Experiences Abroad" was written by Daniel Albalate of the University of Barcelona and Germa Bel of the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics. They review the experiences with HSR of Japan, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy and seek to draw lessons for the United States. Their country profiles point out the different policy objectives in each case, leading to somewhat different implementation strategies (e.g., some doing all new rights of way but others upgrading existing rail lines). 
Among the lessons learned are the following:
  • HSR is not a particularly useful tool for fighting CO2 emissions;
  • Energy use and emissions for HSR are much higher than for conventional trains, and are similar to those for cars and buses.
  • HSR does not generate new economic activity, nor does it attract new firms and investment, but does help to consolidate and promote on-going activities in large cities.
  • Medium-size cities may be put at a disadvantage, due to HSR shifting some economic activities to larger cities.
  • HSR involves huge construction and operating costs, and cost overruns seem to be high in almost all cases.
  • Political pressures (e.g. for extra station stops or to serve low-traffic points) often lead to higher costs and decreased benefits;
  • These economics cast doubt on the use of public-private partnerships in HSR projects;
  • It is difficult to justify HSR in corridors where first-year demand is below 8 to 10 million annual passengers [far higher than any of the planned U.S. projects].
These are sobering lessons, and they should be factored into serious quantitative assessments of whether any proposed HSR project is a sound transportation investment.
So what's the motivating drive behind this administration push?  George Will gives his opinion in Newsweek - which I don't necessarily fully agree with, but I think he raises some interesting points in his theory (bold highlights mine):
High Speed to Insolvency 
Why liberals love trains. 
Generations hence, when the river of time has worn this presidency’s importance to a small, smooth pebble in the stream of history, people will still marvel that its defining trait was a mania for high-speed rail projects. This disorder illuminates the progressive mind. 
Remarkably widespread derision has greeted the Obama administration’s damn-the-arithmetic-full-speed-ahead proposal to spend $53 billion more (after the $8 billion in stimulus money and $2.4 billion in enticements to 23 states) in the next six years pursuant to the president’s loopy goal of giving “80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail.” “Access” and “high-speed” to be defined later. 
Criticism of this optional and irrational spending—meaning: borrowing —during a deficit crisis has been withering. Only an administration blinkered by ideology would persist.
...
Washington, disdaining the decisions of Ohio and Wisconsin voters, replied that it will find states that will waste the money. 
California will. Although prostrate from its own profligacy, it will sink tens of billions of its own taxpayers’ money in the 616-mile San Francisco–to–San Diego line. Supposedly 39 million people will eagerly pay much more than an airfare in order to travel slower (!!). Between 2008 and 2009, the projected cost increased from $33 billion to $42.6 billion.
...
So why is America’s “win the future” administration so fixated on railroads, a technology that was the future two centuries ago? Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior. 
Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons—to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism. 
To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they—unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted—are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make

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27 Comments:

At 9:58 AM, March 23, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior" Please. This is too stupid a sentence, even for George Will.
The portions of his column that you've highlighted are just as vapid. As if driving around Houston doesn't require "collective" behavior on the part of all drivers. Not to mention flying from Houston to San Antonio. I'd much rather have the option to ride HSR between the two cities than deal with the "collective" experience of airport security and the "freedom" of sitting in a small, pressurized compartment with 120 others for a flight that may be delayed by weather (virtually anywhere in the USA) or diverted to another airport, etc. We can debate whether HSR could be part of the solution, but it's not a real discussion is you have to resort to such inane arguments. Surely you can do better than Will's ridiculous column. And, by the way, which parts of the column do you not fully agree with?

 
At 12:44 PM, March 23, 2011, Anonymous awp said...

Yea, the claims about progressives aim with respect to trains is laughable.
In arguments I have had with progressives ,they mainly are impervious to the arguments that the trains are not cost effective because they believe that that is a result of subsidies for sprawl and driving.
Well then we should get rid of those other subsidies, not add more.
Since progressives seem to believe that govt. should/can be used to solve all of the worlds problems it seems hard for them to cut back govt. even when it is causing the problems.
Matt Yglesias has been pointing out govt. policies that work against progressive goals in the urban context and professional licensing. All you have to do is read the comments on one of these posts to see how reflexively a progressive audience pushes back against cutting govt. even when it would arguably help them reach their goals.

 
At 4:06 PM, March 23, 2011, Blogger Michael said...

>>Well then we should get rid of those other subsidies, not add more.

So - you think we should have a transportation system without any subsidies, ideally? I don't think that would work. How would poor people get to work, for instance, without a heavily subsidized mass transit system?

And if that doesn't work, then I think it is reasonable to assume that the government would subsidize HSR or other forms of mass transit just as they subsidize automobile transit and sprawl.

 
At 6:23 PM, March 23, 2011, Anonymous awp said...

Michael,

"believe that that is a result of subsidies for sprawl and driving.
Well then we should get rid of those other subsidies, not add more."

I have never heard any one try to argue that bus transit subsidies encourage sprawl or driving.

Some subsidies might be economically(externalities) or morally(helping the poor) good.

But previous bad government policy(encourage driving/sprawl) is not an argument for more government intervention. Which is the argument that I was talking about, that I have seen and heard progressives use with respect to HSR.

 
At 10:40 PM, March 23, 2011, Blogger Michael said...

>>But previous bad government policy(encourage driving/sprawl) is not an argument for more government intervention

No, but if you accept that there is such a good thing as good government intervention, as in some mass transit for the poor, then I think there is an argument to made that the government should invest more intelligently in both subsidizing of driving and HSR.

I would argue, for instance, that *instead* of building useless projects like the Grand Parkway through environmentally sensitive habitat that has already flooded over the course of the last couple of years, we should be building HSR, or at least planning for eventual HSR, to Dallas. At the very least, the money being used for the Grand Parkway should be going towards more cost-effective roadway improvements for the millions of people that already live in our region, such as improvements on Highway 6, at Westheimer / Post Oak, or tunneling 45 / 59 near downtown.

 
At 10:49 PM, March 23, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> At the very least, the money being used for the Grand Parkway should be going towards more cost-effective roadway improvements for the millions of people that already live in our region, such as improvements on Highway 6, at Westheimer / Post Oak, or tunneling 45 / 59 near downtown.

Logical, but the reason this is not happening is also logical: the GP as a toll road will generate money - in theory more than enough to cover its costs and then some - which none of those other projects will. This is why TXDoT and HCTRA can afford to embrace it in ways they can't with other projects.

 
At 11:15 PM, March 23, 2011, Anonymous awp said...

Michael,

I don't think there are any positive external effects or any essential moral good to driving or traveling by HSR, so I don't see why government should subsidize either.

 
At 11:57 PM, March 23, 2011, Blogger Michael said...

>>I don't think there are any positive external effects or any essential moral good to driving or traveling by HSR, so I don't see why government should subsidize either.

That's fine for you to feel that way, but

1) I choose to accept the reality that government will continue to subsidize things like transportation for the foreseeable future, and so long as they do so, forms of transportation that I favor should also be included in the funding mix.

2) I do think there are moral and positive external effects to our transportation choices. I think such external effects and moral implications exist for nearly everything. It may be a more negligible moral issue than feeding or transporting the poor, but to me things like keeping the environment clean and building things that are efficient is important. Also, a great mass transportation system is beneficial in my opinion to several communities: the poor, the elderly, those who cannot drive for other reasons, etc. Many of these groups would benefit from more focus on mass transit and less on roadways and autos. And there is clearly moral benefit in providing these people with the same level of service you may have come to expect of your auto and freeway options. I don't really see how you can say there is no moral judgment in not providing them the same levels of service, but obviously you are entitled to your opinion.

and as for Tory's claim that the Grand Parkway is OK because it is a toll road:

>>This is why TXDoT and HCTRA can afford to embrace it in ways they can't with other projects.

That's also fine, but at some point someone is going to have to man up and raise taxes. And tackle necessary projects rather than embracing toll roads in the middle of nowhere.

 
At 8:33 AM, March 24, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I do actually agree that raising the gas tax a bit is called for, or at least indexing it to inflation. The local gas tax option that has been pushed in the legislature would also be good.

 
At 2:20 PM, March 24, 2011, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

"How would poor people get to work, for instance, without a heavily subsidized mass transit system?'

They would walk or ride a bike or drive in their own cars, or car pool with someone else just like poor people do currently in the USA. Mass transit in the USA does not serve poor people very well. Metro in Houston caters only very minimally to poor people.

I would argue and the facts are born out, throughout much of Hispano America, that private, non-subsidized market driven mass transit serves poor people very well(that is, where it is allowed to occur). I grew up on the border in El Paso. In El Paso they have a state subsized transit monopoly that was and still is highly ineffective at getting very many people to very many destinations. As a kid I never used the El Paso buses. Across the river, in Juarez, with a couple of dollars, you could go anywhere you wanted to because there were multiple private bus services, jitneys and taxis that went literally everywhere. As a kid, we would drive to the bridge, walk over and then use the private mass transit to get around.

 
At 2:32 PM, March 24, 2011, Blogger Michael said...

>>They would walk or ride a bike or drive in their own cars, or car pool with someone else just like poor people do currently in the USA. Mass transit in the USA does not serve poor people very well. Metro in Houston caters only very minimally to poor people.

Maybe Metro could do a better job, but I guarantee you if you look at those riding the city buses, the income figures are going to be skewed towards the lower quintiles.

Mass transit is another option for poor people - in addition to car pool, bicycle, or car pool as you state. In many cases, owning an auto is still a luxury that many cannot afford.

>>I would argue and the facts are born out, throughout much of Hispano America, that private, non-subsidized market driven mass transit serves poor people very well(that is, where it is allowed to occur)

Well, you are probably going to have to come up with a nicer example than Ciudad Juarez for Americans to want to emulate their mass transit success - I don't think too many people have positive images of Juarez, nor would they wish to emulate Juarez in anything. Otherwise, if jitneys / private buses can do a better job than a government monopoly at serving the poor, then bring on the data showing so, and let's get rid of mass transit in NYC and Chicago, etc.. Until then, we will have to make due with Metro and our other mass transit organizations.

 
At 3:23 PM, March 24, 2011, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

Michael,

I am sorry you have negative images about Ciudad Juarez. It is a city full of poor people in a developing country. Perhaps you can't stand the image of a city full of the poor people you worry about. But your image of Juarez does not change the fact that private mass transit worked very well in Juarez, and very well throughout the rest of the world where there are no government strictures prohibiting it. I submit that it would work in Houston except that it is, with few exceptions, prohibited by law. Where it is allowed, such as with the Houston Jitney ordinance, it is so highly circumscribed and regulated that it can't function and turn a profit.

The best example of the negative externalities created by state run mass transit is found in Havana, Cuba. In 1959, mass transit in Havan was entirely private and market driven. I quote from the wikipedia article:

"In 1959, Havana's buses carried out over 29,000 daily bus trips across a dense layout of routes that connected the 600,000 inhabitants of Havana. After the Socialist Revolution, all business were nationalised, and public transport was assigned to the Ministerio del Transporte (MITRANS). In the Province of the City of Havana, Provincial Transport Authority functions are carried out by 11 divisions. But this bureaucratic, complex system of central control produces today only 8,000 trips per day, for a population that triples that of 1959."

 
At 5:03 PM, March 24, 2011, Blogger Michael said...

>>Where it is allowed, such as with the Houston Jitney ordinance, it is so highly circumscribed and regulated that it can't function and turn a profit.

I think there are several examples of successful private operators in the Houston metro area - the Washington wave, the Woodlands express buses, etc.

I don't think it makes sense to fund mass transit in most of Houston and then allow private competition on the same routes, at the same times.

>>I am sorry you have negative images about Ciudad Juarez. It is a city full of poor people in a developing country. Perhaps you can't stand the image of a city full of the poor people you worry about.

The point I am making is that Juarez, or Havana for that matter, are *never* going to be used as models that most of the American public is going to buy into. So you may as well come up with better example cities. Juarez and Havana are sufficiently different from US cities like Houston as to be almost completely irrelevant as we plan our mass transit. That's all I am saying.

 
At 9:13 PM, March 24, 2011, Blogger Alon Levy said...

@AWP: fine, let's get rid of the subsidies. The problem is twofold:

1. The people who are gung ho against HSR are not saying the government should stop meddling in general; they're twisting themselves into knots pretending roads don't benefit from subsidies and friendly regulations. Ed Glaeser and William Lind's opposition to HSR I respect. George Will and Megan McArdle's I don't.

2. Other than transportation wonks and people with experience with European rail operations, American pundits don't understand how awful the local passenger rail regulations are. Trains have to be overstaffed and pass globally unique regulations that add weight and make it impossible to run off-the-shelf imports. For the most part, transit subsidies in the US don't benefit riders; they benefit ticket-punchers, contractors, and FRA bureaucrats.

 
At 9:25 PM, March 24, 2011, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

Michael,

I agree with you that it makes no sense to have private mass transit compete with publically funded mass transit. Yet, we already do that, in a way, by having private cars on the same right of way as buses and metro trains. My answer to that is to end publically funded mass transit. Private mass transit does not have to be sold to the public at large, only to the riders it serves. Private transit is not subject to any political expedients or the mercurial whims and caprices of lobby groups because it doesn’t take any taxpayer money.

Mass transit should be as varied as all the cars we see on the road today. Metaphorically, there should be everything from Yugo quality service to Cadillac quality service and prices with all the gradations and prices in between. There should be ten to fifteen different size vehicles to serve different market needs. There should hundreds if not a thousand routes in a metro area like Houston. But with a monopolistic, centrally planned, publically funded mass transit we don’t have any of that variety. Instead we have pretty much one size and price fits all.

It is impossible for a single planning board or even a group of boards to determine the myriad needs of a metro area of five million such as Houston. Aside from the radical differences between say, Woodlands commuters and East End commuters; within those two different communities there are many subtler differences that aren’t served because they can’t even be recognized by a planning board. A planning board can’t anticipate, the route, type of vehicle, quality of service and tolerable price points for those distinct areas much less for the whole region. Only competitive markets with real choices can determine those things.

It we eliminated public mass transit today; we would very quickly see a variety of services with different pricing to fill the gap. You would see every type and variety of bus and van. You would witness routes that today are not served at all. And it wouldn’t matter what the public at large thought of it because they would not be subsidizing it with tax dollars.

 
At 9:31 PM, March 24, 2011, Blogger Michael said...

@AWP:

>>I said I don't see any POSITIVE effects to driving or riding HSR. Can you think of any? No, the fact that driving hurts the environment is not an argument for subsidizing HSR or mass transit. It is an argument for removing subsidies and regulations that encourage sprawl and driving.

Yes, I think that HSR has positive effects, including environmental - including location and stops that would benefit the groups I have talked about. Including that it encourages density and build-out of local mass transit. Including, as Tory's article pointed out, that HSR is another huge piece of infrastructure that separates the big cities from the small, and would stand to greatly benefit places like Houston at the expense of smaller southern rivals.

I would be fine with removing subsidies and regulations that promote sprawl and driving, but really I think what you are suggesting is at the very least, only subsidy of a 2 lane interstate system, and possibly every road, including local roads, being privately built, financed, and tolled. And I can't see either of these scenarios having even the remotest chance of occurring - the reality is there may be some increased tolling and private construction, but the feds are going to continue to chip in to build 20 lane highways as well. So to me it is a moot point to keep debating the point of whether those subsidies will magically disappear in the future - because in my opinion, there's a snowball's chance in hell of that changing.

And even if the feds did change to fund only 2 lanes of interstate everywhere, I still think they should also be chipping in for HSR in our mega-regions like the Texas triangle.

Only in your libertarian utopia of "every road a toll road" would I say that the feds have no monetary role in the construction of HSR, and, as I said - that's so unlikely to happen that I really don't think it is even worth arguing. As you state, that likely makes things even *better* for HSR because it would compete on a level playing field. I understand that. But I also understand that this idea is pure fantasy, and nothing more.

 
At 9:43 PM, March 24, 2011, Blogger Michael said...

Jardinero,

>>My answer to that is to end publically funded mass transit.

2 problems with that:
1) Voters approved a sales tax to have publicly funded mass transit. Good luck changing that.
2) I think you'd end up with chaos if you had complete privatization of our mass transit system. The government would at least need to act as a coordinator / supervisor / landlord for schedules, fares, bus stops and park and rides, etc. Otherwise, chaos.

 
At 10:38 PM, March 24, 2011, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

Private actors in competitive markets work very well to get food in our refrigerators and gas in our cars. No government planning or management is required. There is no reason private mass transit unleashed couldn't get commuters to their destinations.

I have traveled in cities with wholly private systems. They are more efficient and serve more riders and routes than the publicly funded systems in the USA. Just because you can't imagine how they might work doesn't mean they don't work. The fact is they do in many parts of the world. Aesthetically, they may leave something to be desired but mass transit is about mobility and serving the most riders at the lowest cost not aesthetics.

 
At 11:55 PM, March 24, 2011, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Jardinero, would any of those cities by any chance be a first-world city? (No, Hong Kong doesn't count - the MTR was built as a public system and only privatized recently).

Just because jitneys work when the people are too poor to afford alternatives doesn't mean they work when people get richer. There's a body of literature in developed countries about when jitneys can be useful, and it's far from "all transit markets."

 
At 8:45 AM, March 25, 2011, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

I argue in favor of private, market driven, mass transit in general, not jitney's in particular. Jitney's are useful because, in the hands of private operators, they serve routes with fewer riders very efficiently. Transit agencies don't like offering jitney service because they cannot figure out where to run them. Only smaller operators with the ability and flexibility to experiment can find the niches where they can be profitable. Additionally, jitneys make the big buses and train less cost effective because it is believed they take riders away from the bigger vehicles. To which I reply, maybe the transit agencies are running too many big vehicles and not enough small vehicles.

I don't understand the perseveration on the first world-third world dichotomy. Mass transit is about moving the most people, to the most places in the most cost effective way possible; not about distinguishing oneself from this place or that.

What you should be asking is whether, in a free society, people should have choices on matters of quality and price. Transit agencies and their proponents don't offer choices. The only reason we don't have examples of private mass transit in the USA is because it is prohibited by law.

 
At 8:59 AM, March 25, 2011, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

This thread went off on this tangent when Michael expressed his concern about serving the transit needs of poor people. I share his concern. I replied that poor people are better served by private mass transit, citing as example, Juarez, a city full of poor people. It is regrettable, that I can find no examples of poor people being served by private mass transit in the USA, because alas, the law prohibits private operators from serving poor people, though the law does allow the rich limo and luxury cab service. Regrettably, few transit agencies serve the transit needs of poor people either, focusing instead on shiny trains through commercial districts and express busses to the suburbs.

 
At 4:55 PM, March 25, 2011, Blogger Alon Levy said...

The reason the first vs. third world distinction makes sense is that what you call private mass transit tends to stop working when there are a lot of cars on the road.

The reason I'm talking about jitneys is that not all private mass transit is created equal. Developed East Asian cities have very well-run private transit - but much of it comes from agencies that were originally public but were recently privatized, and even the companies that remain public are far better-run than American agencies. For that matter, the same is true of the Shinkansen lines, which were built publicly and are now in private hands.

If the issue is access to infrastructure, then there's a separate model, used increasingly in the EU, mandating open access to rails. The infrastructure is owned publicly, but private and public companies have the right to bid on services. It's roughly the opposite of how Amtrak works.

 
At 2:07 PM, March 26, 2011, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

Alon,

I can't address your experience with Asian cities, but in Mexico there is a high rate of personal auto ownership.

 
At 6:04 PM, March 26, 2011, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Mexico's car ownership rate isn't that high - Wikipedia's ranked list (which isn't always accurate) says the country has 208/1,000 vehicles, which is less than in New York City. Of the Asian cities I've mentioned, some have low car ownership (Hong Kong at 74, Singapore at about 200) and some have higher car ownership (Greater Tokyo at 350), but all have lower costs of car ownership relative to GDP per capita than Mexico.

 
At 3:56 PM, April 06, 2011, Anonymous Evan said...

I currently live in a 3rd world city where trains are a huge part of the way to get around and cars are uberheavily taxed. Whether on purpose or not, it's definitely true that when a car is a luxury then individualism and the free market break down. Customer service ceases to exist, and shopowners begin to think they are doing you a favor by selling to you, because...heck, where else are you going to go?

 
At 11:18 PM, April 15, 2011, Blogger Centerpointe Moderator said...

FYI, good blog post on the responsivity and cost-effectiveness of buses:
http://mjperry.blogspot.com/2011/04/megabus-effect-success-story-of-low.html

 
At 8:35 AM, April 16, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks for the blog post link. I have that BW story, and am definitely planning a blog post on it soon. Great stuff.

 

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