HSR Just Doesn't Fit

According to many economists, including the well-respected Robert J. Samuelson, the federal government's effort to fund high-speed rail lines is like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. If one really breaks down the numbers, the Obama administration's goals of reducing green house gas emissions, traffic congestion, and oil consumption with these rail lines are idealistic to say the least, and this idealism may cost states more than their budgets can handle right now.

The administration wants to build rail lines in 13 urban corridors throughout the nation, 12 of which span distances of less than 500 miles. High-speed rail in these areas would compete with car and air travel, but statistics indicate that this would not save a significant amount on energy costs. Assuming daily air passengers, about 52,934 people in the 12 corridors in 2007, switched to high-speed rail, the result would amount to only a 2.5% drop in air passenger totals. Driving is even less likely to decrease seeing as 85% of the 140 million Americans drive to work each day. If you take the example of the Northeast corridor with 45 million commuters, only 28,500 of which take Amtrak, high-speed rail will not divert enough drivers to cut the amount of energy costs that the administration claims it will.

However, they use high-speed rail models from Europe and Asia to justify spending upwards of $10.5 billion on this infrastructure of the future. The problem with this is that the successful high-speed rail lines, the most successful of which are the Paris-Lyon and the Tokyo-Osaka lines, are located in densely populated urban areas. The United States became heavily suburban in the past half century and the percentage of the metropolitan population living in central cities dropped to 32% in 2000. As a result, jobs spread out to the suburbs and more Americans are even working from home. Rail service to big core cities will be even less useful as this trend continues.

Washington will end up footing most of the bill for these high-speed rail projects, especially in states like California that have massive budget woes and few interested private investors. In fact, California is asking for $19 billion for its now $42.6 billion project. That’s almost twice as much as the administration has paid for all the high-speed rail projects in the nation combined (currently $10.5 billion). If this starts happening in every state waiting to get high-speed rail, even if it is on a smaller scale, the federal government will have little money to address the country’s more pressing needs, such as education.

Some state governments are starting to wise up. Not wanting to waste money on unfruitful high-speed rail lines, they are simply rejecting federal money for these projects because they would not be able to spend the funds on things they really want, like better roads. Obviously, the federal government won't be able to force high speed rail on Americans for long.

There is no doubt the Obama administration has good intentions for high-speed rail, but good intentions don't always translate to success. Rather than try to wedge its idealistic vision of a new transportation infrastructure into the realities of recession-ridden America, it should evaluate what the country truly needs.

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This Makes No Sense

Why do you assume that only "daily" air passengers would use high speed rail? That makes no sense at all, and neither does your comparison of 28,000 out of 45 million commuters taking Amtrak. Amtrak is not built for people travel to work every day. That's why millions of people ride the subways, light rail, and buses in New York, Washington, and Boston.

Would you use this same reasoning to argue against the construction of more airports? I mean really, how many people fly to work every day?

As far as your density argument, that was debunked pretty thoroughly over at the California HSR blog.

The alleged HSR fallacy

In fact the need for HSR is real and is part of a larger inclusive goal of transportation solutions to lower emissions and CO2, congestion, sprawl, and it offers the opportunity to build beta systems that can be replicated elsewhere, bringing down costs. The economic IQ test expressed by those who can't see the benefit of HSR presumes a too narrow view based only on immediate competition between one beta system and a status quo, but with a longer range view HSR has a place in a transportation system including electric cars, carpooling, hov, gas taxes, light rail, self-powered vehicles, and walking.