Freakonomics blogger Eric Morris seeks to “start the debate” on high speed rail with his buddy Ed Glaeser, except that I don’t usually seek to start debates with authoritative titles like “the bottom line on high speed rail.” Yesterday, Stephen Dubner did him one better by categorically denying peak oil – which kind of misses the point of what the broadest definition of peak oil means.
I’ll give the folks over at Reason this – they’re far more honest with their headlines.
Sam Staley, Reason‘s transportation guy, has a post up criticizing high speed rail’s role as a job creating stimulus program. Given where politicians on both sides of the aisle set the bar with their hyperbole, this isn’t saying too much. Staley writes:
In April, President Barack Obama claimed “my high speed rail proposal will lead to innovations in the way we travel” and new rail lines “will generate many thousands of construction jobs over several years, as well as permanent jobs for rail employees and increased economic activity in the destinations these trains serve.”
Even House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who voted against the stimulus bill, now wildly praises rail’s job-creation potential, writing, “It is estimated that creating a high-speed railway through Virginia will generate as many as 185,500 jobs, as much as $21.2 billion in economic development, and pull nearly 6.5 million cars off the road annually. Providing a high-speed rail service from Washington, D.C. to Richmond will drive economic development throughout our region for many years to come.”
Now, the political realities of the day mean that everyone wants to talk about creating jobs, whether you’re the President or a member of the minority party with a chance to bring home some money to your district. The numbers on jobs are grossly inflated, enough so that they don’t pass the smell test.
Both Staley and Morris, despite my disagreement with their conclusions, raise interesting points about alternative avenues of investment. Staley harps of freight rail while Morris angles for more investment in urban mass transit. What both miss, however, is that high speed passenger rail improvements are complimentary programs to improved freight rail and urban mass transit.
Given the (apparent) early favorable returns for ‘high speed’ rail projects that fall just a bit short of TGV-esque speeds, the kinds of improvements to existing freight rail corridors (grade separation, signaling improvements, etc) will benefit passenger trains and freight trains alike. Since railroads are mostly privately owned, they don’t have a lot of incentive to undertake expensive infrastructure upgrades for modest increases in speed, even though they’ll gain a great deal from them. Throw in a little incentive from the government, however (in exchange for improved passenger rail operations), and you’ve got a different situation.
Likewise, passenger rail can deliver people directly to city centers and other walkable places. Eric Morris argues that that money should be spent on urban mass transit – but a cursory look at urban mass transit needs shows that the overall needs are so great, it’s kinda useless to split hairs at this point. We need money for both inter and intra city transport infrastructure.
Rail stations are the kind of focal points that make great trip generators for mass transit systems. However, Staley points out the catch-22 of this argument – while Morris wants more transit, Staley uses the lack of transit as an argument against rail:
Consider a trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, or Chicago to St. Louis, for a typical high-speed train traveler. You’ll likely have to drive to the train station and pay to park. Once arriving in downtown St. Louis or San Francisco, you will likely have to take a taxi or rent a car to get to your hotel or meeting place (which is likely to be outside the central business district). The reliable, diverse, and nimble transit system that many advocates envision surrounding high-speed rail stations simply doesn’t exist in most cities today, limiting the appeal of trains.
When determining whether to build the chicken or the egg first, why not start and do both at the same time?
Hmmmmm. If only we had some sort of national transportation law to guide us on this…