As someone who loves riding trains, it pains me to say that the Obama administration’s high-speed rail initiative is misconceived. It appears to be a solution in search of a problem, or problems, to be solved. Let’s examine the usual rationales.
To reduce greenhouse gases?
Recent analysis by researchers at UC Berkeley found that high-speed rail may yield only marginal net greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions, once the impacts of constructing it are included — especially if ridership falls short of official projections. And the cost of those GHG reductions is very high—in the vicinity of $2,000 per ton. Compare that to other low-hanging-fruit reductions that cost more like $50 per ton.
To reduce our petroleum dependence?
That’s not very plausible, when all but two of the funded projects are diesel-powered. And a recent analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that non-subsidized inter-city bus service is much less energy-intensive (BTUs per passenger mile) than highly subsidized inter-city rail.
To provide Americans with a new transportation choice?
As a rail fan, I’d like that—but I don’t think my fellow taxpayers should be forced to pay for this new choice. At least not when intercity highway and intercity air travel are self-supporting from user taxes.
To provide congestion relief?
Most traffic congestion is urban, not inter-city. And to the extent that high-speed rail serves commuters, it becomes slower-speed rail.
To keep up with Europe & Japan?
This kind of rationale ignores major differences between the United States and the counties where high-speed rail (HSR) plays a significant role.
In Europe and Japan, cities are far more centralized, so trips from city-center to city-center (where rail goes) serve a much higher fraction of trips than they would in this country (apart from the Northeast Corridor). And the cost of alternatives is much higher in these countries. Driving costs far more due to both high toll rates and much higher fuel taxes. For example, driving from Paris to Marseilles involves $75 in one-way tolls plus $6 a gallon for gas. Inter-city bus is not available at all in France. And air fares are higher, too, especially in Japan.
With less likelihood of attracting high ridership than in Europe or Japan, we can be sure that none of these U.S. projects, if built, will recover their capital costs, so they will not attract private investment the way toll roads, airports, or seaports can. (Only two overseas HSR lines—Paris to Lyon and Tokyo to Osaka—have recovered their capital costs.) That means already deficit-riddled, hard-pressed states will have to come up with the portion of capital costs not funded by federal taxpayers. Likewise, lower ridership than overseas makes it doubtful these lines will break even on operating costs, thereby requiring ongoing, annual operating subsidies—from some unknown source of funding.
As I told a reporter the other day, given these dismal economics, my advice to states is to look before they leap. These federal high-speed rail grants may be the gift that keeps on taking from taxpayers.
Robert Poole is director of transportation studies at Reason Foundation.