The Obama administration appears to have established the development of high speed rail (HSR) as the most important plank of its transportation strategy. The effort may be popular with the media and planners, but it’s being promoted largely on the basis of overstatement and even misinformation.
I have had considerable experience evaluating high speed rail projects. Most recently, Joe Vranich (a former colleague on the Amtrak Reform Council) and I teamed to produce an extensive report on the subject, California High Speed Rail: A Due Diligence Report. The findings, based on information provided by the HSR promoters reveal the claims of the Administration to be highly questionable.
Financing: It begins with understanding transportation financing in the United States. The Administration notes that far more money has been spent on highways and airports than on intercity rail. This is not in question. However, virtually all of the money spent to build the nation’s highway system and its major airports has been paid for by users of the system. Highway users have paid for intercity highways with their state and federal fuel taxes. Airport users have paid for the airports and the air traffic control system with taxes on their tickets. Put directly, if you don’t use the highway or airport system, you don’t pay. Indeed, not only do highway users pay for highways, but at the federal level, their funds provide 8 times as much revenue to transit per passenger mile as to highways.
Passenger rail finance is another matter. Generally, users pay less than one-half the total costs of passenger rail. The rest comes from taxpayers. If passenger rail were financed the same way as highways and airports, it would be largely paid for – both capital and operating costs – by fares and by taxes on tickets. Of course that would not work, because passenger rail is far more costly than the highway and airport competition. Today, Amtrak fares per passenger mile are more than double that of the airlines per passenger mile, and that is before the heavy subsidies received by Amtrak.
Indeed, the most recent data provided by the Department of Transportation indicates that the federal government made a profit of $1.00 per 1,000 passenger miles on the highway program while subsidizing passenger rail $210 and transit $159 per 1,000 passenger miles.
Ridership and Relieving Congestion: High Speed Rail is also promoted by the Administration, which claims it will reduce traffic congestion. This claim is fraught with difficulty. First, highway traffic congestion is almost exclusively within urban areas, not between the urban areas that HSR would serve. Data from the California promoters indicates that traffic levels would rise nearly as much with HSR as without it. HSR is projected to reduce traffic by less than 3 percent once the system is complete. Without high speed rail, traffic volumes would increase 52 percent and without high speed rail, traffic volumes would increase 49 percent above 2000 levels (See Figure). In either case, things would be far worse in the future than they are today. And if HSR can make so little difference in congested California, it will surely do less in other parts of the country.
Similarly, HSR will have little or no impact on the need to expand airports. For example, the Bay Area’s regional airport plan noted that high speed rail “would not divert enough passengers to make up for the shortfall in runway capacity.”
In France and Japan, where travel is far more concentrated due to the linear location of major urban areas and the smaller number of large metropolitan centers, markets that are well served by HSR still have significant airline traffic (Tokyo to Osaka and Paris to Marseille). Also worth noting, both nations boasted pre-existing rail ridership levels that account for much of the HSR volumes. There is no such foundation in the United States. The ridership issue is particularly important, because of the miserable record of transportation ridership projections both in the United States and around the world. A most recent example is the Taiwan high speed rail system, which according to the early projections of promoters was to carry 180,000 passengers per day in its early operations. Yet in its second year of operation (2008), the average daily ridership was less than one-half that projection (84,000, calculated from Taiwan government data). This is telling in a country with notoriously congested traffic and very few major urban centers,
This strategy of exaggerating ridership claims (and grossly under-estimating costs) is widespread in rail projects and has been extensively documented in Megaprojects and Risks: An Analysis of Ambition, by international scholars Bent Flyvbjerg, Nils Bruzelius and Werner Rothengatter (available from booksellers). The Taiwan and other international experiences suggest a major HSR investment would cost the taxpayers many additional billions and could bankrupt any private investors.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions: But perhaps the most misleading claims are related to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It starts with the marketing. The Administration’s press release indicates that building all of its routes would reduce GHG emissions by “six billion pounds” annually. This sounds like a big number. It is akin to my characterizing my weight as nearly 100,000 grams, instead of the pounds (200 in my case) that is customary in talking about weight. In GHG emissions, we do not talk about pounds, we talk about metric tons. Six billion pounds is only 2.7 million metric tons (2,205 pounds), which is an infinitesimal share of the GHG emissions from the nation’s passenger transportation. Indeed, given the propensity of the consultants to produce ridership projections less accurate than “Vietnam body counts,” the figure is probably less.
The Administration falls into the usual trap of assuming that theoretical differences in GHG emissions can be turned into radical changes in travel patterns and behavior. The GHG emissions per passenger mile may be less (at least before the coming improvements in vehicle technology) but that does not mean that enough passenger miles can be moved from cars (and planes) to make a material difference. Our experience in high cost urban rail projects should have taught us this.
Moreover, a mere reduction in GHG emissions is not sufficient to justify adoption of a strategy. Strategies must be prioritized based upon their effectiveness, and that is measured by cost. On this score, the California HSR system fails to a degree that is incomprehensible. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has indicated that the cost of GHG emission reduction should be no more than from $20 to $50 per ton. Even that may be too high. For example, Al Gore, Governor Schwarzenegger and Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi studiously buy carbon offsets for the tons of GHG that they produce flying around the country. The current market rate for such offsets is under $15.
The California High Speed Rail Authority, whose leadership touts its GHG emissions reduction potential constantly, did not even bother to look at the cost of GHG emission removal in its thousands of pages of expensive, taxpayer financed reports. We looked at the issue, using California High Speed Rail Authority and California Air Resources Board assumptions and found that the cost per ton of GHG emission removal would be nearly $2,000, or 40 times the maximum figure used by the IPCC. To illustrate how extravagant a figure that is, if the nation were to reduce its GHG emissions by 80 percent (as proposed by the Administration) at the same rate, the annual cost would be more than 75 percent of the gross domestic product.
But that assumes all of the rosy cost and ridership projections. The figure could be as high as $10,000 per GHG ton, if the consultants have exaggerated as much in California as elsewhere.
Conclusion: It is likely that the same arguments can be made even more strongly in other proposed high speed rail markets. Yet, as costly as it is, HSR would be no more objectionable than building a new hardware store if it were paid for by its users. However, when taxpayers are asked to foot the bill, objective analysis of the claims, costs and benefits should at least have some priority. These are issues that an Administration committed to reducing GHG emissions by 80 percent has an interest in addressing. Relying on folklore rather than reality, as seems to be the present case, reflect an abject naivety at the least and incredible foolhardiness at the worst.
Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris. He was born in Los Angeles and was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley. He is the author of "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.”