2009-08-24 14:33:02 UTC
be huge, and the public benefits meager."
"In a country where 140 million people go to work every day, Amtrak
has 78,000 daily passengers. A typical trip is subsidized by about
"A Rail Boondoggle, Moving at High Speed"
By Robert J. Samuelson
Monday, August 24, 2009
THE OBAMA administration's enthusiasm for high-speed rail is a
dispiriting example of government's inability to learn from past
mistakes. Since 1971, the federal government has poured almost $35
billion in subsidies into Amtrak with few public benefits. At most,
we've gotten negligible reductions -- invisible and statistically
insignificant -- in congestion, oil use or greenhouse gases. What's
mainly being provided is subsidized transportation for a small sliver
of the population. In a country where 140 million people go to work
every day, Amtrak has 78,000 daily passengers. A typical trip is
subsidized by about $50.
Given this, you'd think even the dullest politician wouldn't expand
rail subsidies, especially considering the almost $11 trillion in
projected federal budget deficits between now and 2019. But no, the
administration has made high-speed rail a top priority. It's already
proposed spending $13 billion ($8 billion in the "stimulus" package
and $1 billion annually for five years) as a down payment on high-
speed rail in 10 "corridors," including Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and
Houston to New Orleans.
The White House promises fabulous benefits. High-speed rail "will
loosen the congestion suffocating our highways and skyways," says Vice
President Biden. A high-speed rail system would eliminate carbon
dioxide emissions "equal to removing 1 million cars from our roads,"
adds the president. Relieve congestion. Fight global warming. Reduce
oil imports. The vision is seductive. The audience is willing. Many
Americans love trains and regard other countries' systems (say,
Spain's rapid trains between Madrid and Barcelona, running at about
150 mph) as evidence of U.S. technological inferiority.
There's only one catch: The vision is a mirage. The costs of high-
speed rail would be huge, and the public benefits meager.
President Obama's network may never be built. It's doubtful private
investors will advance the money, and once government officials
acknowledge the full costs, they'll retreat. In a recent report, the
Government Accountability Office cited a range of construction costs,
from $22 million a mile to $132 million a mile. Harvard economist
Edward Glaeser figures $50 million a mile might be a plausible
average. A 250-mile system would cost $12.5 billion and 10 systems,
That would be only the beginning. Ticket prices would surely be
subsidized; otherwise, no one would ride the trains. Would all the
subsidies be justified by public benefits -- less congestion, fewer
highway accidents, lower greenhouse gases?
In a blog-posted analysis, Glaeser made generous assumptions for
trains ("Personally, I almost always prefer trains to driving") and
still found that costs vastly outweigh benefits. Consider Obama's
claim about removing the equivalent of 1 million cars. Even if it came
true (doubtful), it would represent less than one-half of 1 percent of
the 254 million registered vehicles in 2007.
What works in Europe and Asia won't in the United States. Even abroad,
passenger trains are subsidized. But the subsidies are more
justifiable because geography and energy policies differ.
Densities are much higher, and high densities favor rail with direct
connections between heavily populated city centers and business
districts. In Japan, density is 880 people per square mile; it's 653
in Britain, 611 in Germany and 259 in France. By contrast, plentiful
land in the United States has led to suburbanized homes, offices and
factories. Density is 86 people per square mile. Trains can't pick up
most people where they live and work and take them to where they want
to go. Cars can.
Distances also matter. America is big; trips are longer. Beyond 400 to
500 miles, fast trains can't compete with planes. Finally, Europe and
Japan tax car transportation more heavily, pushing people to trains.
In August 2008, notes the GAO, gasoline in Japan was $6.50 a gallon.
Americans regard $4 a gallon as an outrage. Proposals for stiff
gasoline taxes (advocated by many, including me) go nowhere.
The mythology of high-speed rail is not just misinformed; it's
antisocial. Governments at all levels are already overburdened.
Compounding the burdens with new wasteful subsidies would squeeze
spending for more vital needs -- schools, police and (ironically) mass
transit. High-speed rail could divert funds from mass-transit systems
that, according to a study by Randal O'Toole of the Cato Institute,
have huge maintenance backlogs: $16 billion in Chicago; $17 billion in
New York; $12.2 billion in Washington; $5.8 billion in San Francisco.
Any high-speed rail system should be financed locally; states should
decide their transportation priorities.
All this seems familiar, because it's Amtrak writ large: the triumph
of fantasy over fact. The same false arguments used to justify Amtrak
(less congestion, pollution, etc.) are recycled. Evidence and
experience count for little. Obama and Biden pander to popular
prejudices instead of recognizing past failure. Boondoggles become
respectable. A White House so frivolous in embracing dubious spending
cannot be believed when it professes concern about future taxes and