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;
These are sobering lessons, and they should be factored into serious quantitative assessments of whether any proposed HSR project is a sound transportation investment.
- 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].
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.
Labels: high-speed rail, mobility strategies, perspectives, politics