We all have policy crushes. For Republicans it’s ending earmarks — you can point out a million times how inconsequential earmarks are in the grand scheme of the federal budget, but if your audience is John Boehner or Tom Coburn, you might as well be speaking to a wall. For myself, it’s nuclear power — so what if natural gas is currently so cheap that nuclear has no practical hope of being economical? It’s the principle of the thing, and the principle of nuclear power is that it’s the sexiest way of generating electric charges ever conceived by man.
The object of Democrats’ hopeless limerence is transportation infrastructure. They’re batty for bridges. They’re round the bend for roads. They’re passionate about ports. If it’s publicly funded and helps something get from point A to point B, Democrats are convinced it is a magical cure-all for our nation’s woes.
The absolute worst of these obsessions is high speed rail (HSR). The policy case for HSR is terrible. The quick verdict from nearly every study: HSR costs are too high, and benefits are too low. The U.S. pattern of urbanization makes HSR a poor choice — our homes and jobs are too spread out to make transport from node to node viable against the flexibility of the automobile. This is likely true across the globe, not just in the decentralized U.S. As a recent report from the Congressional Research Service explains, “virtually no HSR lines anywhere in the world have earned enough revenue to cover both their construction and operating costs.”
High speed rail costs billions of dollars. The cost of merely upgrading an existing rail line is in the range of $7-9 million per mile. Building a new line (which would allow for higher speeds), is closer to $35 million per mile. Finally, Maglev lines are the costliest of all — Japan quoted the price for just the guideline of one to cost $300 million per mile. What’s more, the costs of infrastructure are chronically under-estimated. A study by Flyvberg, Holm, and Buhl found that 90 percent of infrastructure projects were underestimated, resulting in an average cost overrun of 28 percent. For transportation infrastructure, the deceit was even worse — the average cost overrun was a whopping 45 percent.
High speed rail will not alleviate traffic congestion. The Department of Transportation’s Inspector General has concluded that the HSR line in the Northeast Corridor has reduced automobile ridership along the line by less than 1 percent. Planners of a HSR line in Florida found that it would reduce traffic on the most congested sections of its highway by less than 2 percent. Air traffic congestion is also unlikely to be relieved by HSR, as many airlines will use smaller planes rather than reduce their number of flights.
High speed rail’s impact on carbon emissions or oil consumption will be negligible. The Congressional Research Service had this to say about claims that HSR will reduce emissions: “[They] tend to rest heavily on assumed high passenger loads. Moreover, they also tend to ignore the energy and carbon emission of building, maintaining, and rebuilding the infrastructure that supports each mode... [HSR] is unlikely to make much difference in achieving greenhouse gas reduction targets, nor for that matter in the amount of oil imported.”
High speed rail will not have significant spill-over benefits for the national economy. From the U.K’s Eddington Transport Study: “such effects are quite limited in mature economies.” As a solution to long-term structural unemployment, HSR offers virtually nothing.
If HSR really did make sense, it would have been built already by state governments. Take the proposed Los Angeles to San Diego corridor. All of the benefits of such a line would go to Californians — if the benefits really did outweigh the costs, why should any federal subsidies be necessary to make the project happen? And yet, in 2008, when confronted with the monumental costs of such a project, California demurred, much as Florida did in 2000 when voters there began to learn the price tag of their supposed free lunch.
Understanding the pathology of an obsession is next to impossible. Perhaps support for HSR is the lovechild of the liberal fondness for all things European, and the left’s undying conviction that government spending is critical to long term economic growth. Maybe it is rooted in an affection for authoritarianism and collectivism, a latent hatred for the go-anywhere-leave-anytime freedom that automobile owners enjoy. Or possibly, Democrats decided HSR was simply a good way to dress up pork-barrel transfers of money from red flyover states to blue metropolitan areas.
Whatever the reason Democrats became infatuated with trains, it shouldn’t matter now. One of the perks of being in power is that you no longer need to tolerate the irrational policy quirks of the other side. If today’s Republicans are at all serious about fiscal conservatism, high speed rail should be one of the first budget items to be eliminated.