No Free Ride
High speed rail in the United States continues to go nowhere fast… Europe, China, and Japan are laced with rail lines on which sleek bullet trains carry passengers at upwards of 200 miles an hour or even faster, not only taking pressure off congested regional air corridors and roadways, but also moving riders center city to center city (no extra time consuming road travel from airports in taxis, cars or buses). Estimated costs for California’s proposed $100 billion LA to San Francisco line now meet the hard cold reality of lack of available funding. Gov. Jerry Brown cannot find the money in state coffers while the federal government won’t muster much more than positive lip service from the Department of Transportation. Other proposals for a national system outlined early in the Obama administration have disappeared off the radar screen. The budget conscious Congress just will not support much more than maintenance infrastructure spending even though U.S. transportation systems—built 50 to 100 years ago--fall further behind the rest of the developed world. At the same time, most state and local governments may have the wherewithal to patch the potholes in roads from this wickedly freezing winter, but not much more.
On examination, high speed rail really only makes sense for city to city travel within 300-500 mile, high density population corridors—where trains can out-convenience driving or jet travel and attract high volume ridership. If only for money, the California line or another $100 billion plus estimated upgrade to the Amtrak system linking Washington to New York and Boston are no brainers and real necessities for inter-city 21st Century transport. In fact even today, the 80-mile per hour Northeast Acela trains carry more passengers than airlines between these cities. What would it be like to get to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station from Penn Station in New York in 30 minutes or from New York to Boston by train in 90 minutes? At the rate we’re going nobody reading this will ever know.
So what’s going on with news reports about “a series of public hearings scheduled in six upstate New York cities where state and federal transportation officials will discuss plans for a $45 billion high-speed rail corridor linking New York City to Niagara Falls? Today that trip consumes eight hours when you can drive in about seven or fly in 90 minutes or less. Who is kidding who—this project just will not happen. State and local pols can capture some headline grabbing attention about helping upstate’s woebegone Rust Belt economy. But they will be hard-pressed to find (the $5-10 billion) dollars for new tracks that might shave even an hour or two off the long train ride. And so what’s the point of even that? Talk about wasting taxpayer money on arranging for these meetings.
Besides the absence of funds, also standing in the way of California and Northeast corridor high speed rail is lack of political willpower to confront right-of-way and eminent domain issues. New modern rail lines will need to be built through heavily developed districts, forcing out businesses and scarring neighborhoods—construction could be delayed for years by various lawsuits winding through the courts.
Florida and Texas talk up high speed rail between various cities. A Portland to Seattle to Vancouver, BC line makes sense too. Where’s the money? Where indeed? There will be no free ride, let alone a faster one.
For an irreverent take on the macroeconomic environment, check out GlobeSt.com's Chief Economist authored by Dr. Sam Chandan.