Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Runaway Subsidy Train

The Runaway Subsidy Train. By WENDELL COX
In some corridors, 'high-speed' rail won't be much faster than trains in the 1930s.
WSJ, Feb 01, 2010

On Thursday the Obama administration awarded $8 billion in stimulus funds to plan and build high-speed rail projects in California and Florida, and for other routine passenger-rail projects masquerading as high-speed rail. This is a political plum to the states that will receive the money.

It is also a dream come true for fans of bullet trains in Japan and Europe and the faster, greenhouse gas-belching Mag-Lev (magnetic levitation) lines. But this is not money well spent.

Supporters say high-speed rail is a cost-effective, "green" solution to airport and highway congestion. In reality, it is costly to build and operate and has a negligible impact on highway and airport traffic. High-speed rail is driven by little more than a romantic notion to confer a European ambiance on American cities.

Proponents also claim that high-speed rail is profitable, but this too is off the mark. Internationally, only two segments have ever broken even: Tokyo to Osaka and Paris to Lyon.

Ridership in these markets has been bolstered by high gasoline prices and one-way highway tolls of $40 and $100, respectively. These and other foreign routes have attracted much of their ridership from a strong core of rail passengers that does not exist in the U.S.

The administration is giving California $2.25 billion for trains that are expected to reach 220 miles per hour between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The cost of building this rail line is now estimated by the California High Speed Rail Authority to be more than $40 billion and could be $60 billion or more.

Even after adjusting for inflation, the projected cost of the system has increased by half over the original cost in the past decade. Ridership projections have also fluctuated wildly, from as low as 32 million annually to nearly 100 million; now the rail authority estimates the train will carry 41 million passengers each year.

High-speed rail does little to unsnarl traffic jams because most highway congestion is within urban areas, not between them. It also has negligible impact on airport congestion. The world's strongest high-speed rail market, Tokyo to Osaka, is also one of the world's largest airline markets. Even with high-speed rail, there is still frequent air-shuttle service between Paris and Marseille.

Environmental claims are misleading. Using California High Speed Rail Authority's data, Joe Vranich and I estimated that the California system would reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases, such as CO2, at a cost of $2,000 per ton. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that we should be able to meet its greenhouse gas targets by spending $50 or less per ton.

The administration is planning on giving Florida $1.25 billion to build a Tampa to Orlando high-speed rail line. The train on that route is expected to hit speeds of 160 mph and to make a trip between the two cities in about 45 minutes.

This will be helpful if you happen to live in the Orlando Station and have business in the Tampa Station. But most travelers will be better off driving.

It's about 90 minutes by car, though it can be less depending on your home and destination. Once you factor in the time it would take to travel to the station, park, walk to the platform, and wait for the train to depart and also pick up a rental car on the other end, driving would probably be faster.

Other rail projects aren't much better. One project involves a line connecting Portland, Ore., and Seattle, Wash. The administration wants to spend $600 million on the line to shave about 10 minutes off of a three-and-a-half hour trip (which it would do by raising average speeds to 51 mph, from 49 mph).


In the other corridors where the administration plans to spend money—such as Charlotte to Raleigh and Chicago to St. Louis—projected train speeds won't be much faster than what the fastest trains in the 1930s were able to do. Some trains then topped 80 mph. As a result, car trips will normally be as fast door to door, and they will be far less costly than taking the train and then renting a car.

There is no need to subsidize intercity travel. Flyers pay for virtually all of the costs of running the airline system, including airports and air traffic control. Gasoline taxes and highway tolls built and maintain intercity roadways, and they also support mass transit with $10 billion in subsidies annually. Intercity buses require no taxpayer funds.

Only rail requires heavy subsidies. At the end of the day, the great danger is that true high-speed rail could cost taxpayers even more than the tens of billions in subsidies that have been paid to Amtrak since the 1970s.

Mr. Obama said in Tampa last week that we are "falling behind" other countries in high-speed rail. With a record budget deficit, it makes sense to fall behind in spending on high-speed rail that we don't need with money we don't have.

Mr. Cox is principal of Demographia, a consulting firm based in St. Louis. He served on the Amtrak Reform Council from 1999-2002 and is co-author with Joseph Vranich of the 2008 Reason Foundation study. "The California High Speed Rail Proposal: A Due Diligence Report."