In my 12 years as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist and blogger, I’ve covered a lot of public policy issues on the state and local levels. Some policy prescriptions to real problems make lots of sense; others don’t quite add up. But at least they’re usually attempts to deal with real problems and are supported by minimal levels of cost-benefit analysis.
Lately, however, I have been flummoxed by the fixation so many of our leaders have with high-speed rail (HSR). Never have so many spent so much time promoting a grand idea in a nation that is so ill-suited to it.
Here in Connecticut, a proposed $1-billion New Haven-to-Springfield line was touted last month by influential Congressman Bill Shuster (R-PA) during an HSR summit — or what Sen. Richard Blumenthal called a “transportation pep rally” — at Union Station in Hartford.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy himself weighed in: Connecticut is the most urbanized of the 50 states. We have 3.3 million people and five cities with 100,000 or more. There’s no place better to do this. This will be one of our main economic drivers for the next 35 to 40 years.
The flawed economic model on which high speed rail is based was well documented earlier this month by Washington Post economics writer Robert Samuelson. But suffice it to say that, at a time when most states are struggling with record deficits, President Obama is proposing to spend $53 billion over six years on a national HSR system that would lose lots of money and likely burden those states with even larger debt.
Now, a reasonable person might ask why we would want to go down that road, so to speak. The push for high-speed rail is, no doubt, a well intentioned reaction to air pollution, congested highways and a desire for energy efficiency. But good intentions are not enough.
Fortunately, some elected officials across the country are having second thoughts about accepting federal funds for these projects. Earlier this month, for example, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida turned down $2.4 billion from the feds to fund an 84-mile HSR line between Tampa and Orlando. The governor reasoned that the project would wind up costing the state an additional $3 billion at a time when Florida is already running a $3.6-billion deficit. Scott was also highly skeptical of what he saw as generous projections for ridership and low-ball estimates for cost overruns.
Oddly, the state itself estimated that about 3.07 million people would take the train in its first year of operation. That’s almost as much as the 3.2 million who ride Amtrak’s Acela, which travels along an urban corridor in the Northeast eight times the size of the Tampa-Orlando market.
Last fall in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie put the kibosh on a proposed rail tunnel under the Hudson River that, despite combined subsides of $6 billion from state and regional authorities, would have cost New Jersey taxpayers $3.5 billion and would have further exposed the state to $2.3 billion in cost overruns.
And HSR construction and bonding costs are just the beginning. Prices for regional rail service are not competitive with other modes of transportation. And I’m not just talking about traveling by car. An old friend who is a former producer for CNN posted a status update on
Facebook recently while riding a bus on the I-95 corridor:
As we zoom past NJT Exit 7A… the 100p Acela from NY to DC costs $209.00 ($315.00 for first class) and takes 2h 47m. The 1230p Megabus cost me $15.00 and will take 4 hours. The bus is huge, with comfortable seats and more legroom than airline economy class. It can probably carry 75, has a European low-emission engine, and there’s free wi-fi on board. No-brainer. All I lack is a bar car. 🙂
In the U.S, rail travel only makes sense as a commuter service in densely populated metropolitan areas. Otherwise, it requires massive subsidies that could be better spent elsewhere — such as retiring our debt or keeping teachers in the classroom and police officers on the street.
In South Korea, where I spent two weeks last summer, just about everyone who doesn’t live out in the country dwells in a high-rise apartment building near a rail line. By contrast, we have vast suburbs in the U.S., each with multiple communities of single-family homes.
Less so than in Asia and Europe, we also grapple with the question of how to get to our final destination once the train has arrived at the station. In a word, making the HSR model work in the U.S. would require a massive and impractical reordering of the way we live.
Let’s hope someone sends the memo on HSR to Gov. Malloy. For if he truly thinks it “will be one of our main economic drivers for the next 35 to 40 years,” then he is fooling himself.
Terry Cowgill blogs at terrycowgill.blogspot.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He is host of Conversations with Terry Cowgill, an hour-long monthly interview program on CATV6 on Comcast’s northwest Connecticut system.