Wednesday, July 11, 2012

America's Fear of Trains

America’s political elite has an unusual phobia. They are terrified of large, metal machines that are guided by rails. This doesn’t apply to all large metal machines, such as SUVs. They just can’t abide the ones with rails underneath them. 

A recent blog from the Heritage Foundation provides the clearest example of this irrational fear by using the headline, “Transportation Secretary Wants Us to Be Like Communist China!” You might expect Secretary LaHood to appear wearing a Mao suit, but apparently his sin was to call for more investment in high-speed rail (HSR). He further offended Heritage by comparing America’s commitment to HSR to China’s and found it lacking.

China's High-Speed Rail in service. No sign of terrified Heritage Foundation writers in this picture. Photo courtesy of Khalidshou/Wikipedia

Those who oppose rail transit tend to gravitate towards the same talking points as in Heritage’s blog. They are:

1.       It’s fiscally irresponsible, since passenger railroads always need subsidies.
2.       The public will never ride in trains because they love their cars so much.
3.       A federally-funded HSR program is an intrusion on states’ rights.

The first point is perhaps the oddest. Heritage cited a Voice of America article that, in turn, cited China’s Academy of Science’s claim that fares from the Chinese HSR system would never be enough to pay off the construction loans. A large portion of these costs may be generated by corruption, which Heritage insinuates is inevitable in big government projects. Heritage appears to be unaware that government corruption in China isn’t just limited to big rail projects. 

I would imagine that the assumption that HSR and corruption go hand-in-hand would be quite a surprise to Germany, builder of the ICE bullet train, and Japan, home of the Shinkansen. Both nations ranked far higher than China on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and slightly higher than the United States.

A corruption-free German ICE train. Photo courtesy of Sebastian Terfloth/Wikipedia.

Cost estimates for US HSR projects range from $50 million ---via an American Enterprise Institute scholar---to a range between $35 million and $50 million---courtesy of a former chairman of California’s High Speed Rail Authority.  That sounds pretty high, until you compare it to the cost of a toll-free interstate highway. A simple upgrade of the Century Freeway in Los Angeles and various routes in Orange County cost between $25 million and $29 million per mile (inflation adjusted from 1994 levels). That’s money thrown into the gas tank and burned, because in less than five years those improvements will have no effect on these roads’ level of service. Just try driving these routes in the late afternoon to verify. Plus, it’s all being paid for out of taxes (fuel and general revenues, mostly). How’s that for a subsidy?

So what about the second point? Will the public refuse to ride a high-speed train? Acela, the high-speed train running from Washington to Boston, certainly isn’t running empty. In the first six months of FY 2012 ridership hit 1.6 million passengers. That’s comparable to traffic out of Washington’s Reagan National Airport bound for New York and Boston on the US Air and Delta Shuttles. Acela isn’t exactly cheap, thanks to Congress’s attempts to starve Amtrak of subsidies, but it takes you directly to Manhattan. The Delta Shuttle out of Washington takes you to LaGuardia Airport in Queens. Expect a hefty cab fare to get into the city, because there’s no rail connection of any kind.

California’s HSR will tie the state’s two largest metropolitan regions together. Opponents claim its first leg will be underutilized, since it will not reach either San Francisco or Los Angeles. However, this is not unprecedented: the first long-distance superhighway built in the US, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, didn’t reach either Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. It stopped well short of both because builders were using the right-of-way of an unbuilt railroad to get at least some of it built quickly and cheaply. That’s EXACTLY what HSR planners in California are doing. We all know the impact of this first superhighway: rail travel, which had been dominant, declined and nearly died off entirely. The car became supreme because it was perceived as being faster.  That perception is steadily weakening on the highly-congested Interstate 5 corridor between San Francisco and Los Angeles, so HSR has some competitive space to get established.

This segues into Heritage’s final point that these decisions are best left to the states. The Pennsylvania Turnpike was a state effort, so opponents might point to this as an example of state-led innovation. However, efforts to expand the nation’s network of superhighways crept along at a Model T’s pace until passage of the Interstate and Defense Highways Act (aka the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956) under President Eisenhower. 

This includes Pennsylvania’s own efforts to add onto the Turnpike. The first stretch opened in 1940; it wouldn’t reach Philadelphia until 1950. The proposed extensions to other parts of the state would not get built until Eisenhower’s Interstate program came into existence in 1956. That’s right---it took federal involvement to get things done.

This is the inherent weakness in the argument of those who view federal programs as an intrusion into states’ rights. To think that California could build an entire HSR line without massive federal assistance is as absurd as expecting Pennsylvania or a more rural state like Alabama to build their interstate highway system without any help. 

Perhaps the final irony in all of this is that the Heritage Foundation, a group traditionally allied with the Republican Party, is arguing against the approach endorsed by that same party at its founding. As Patt Morrison pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, the Republicans incorporated in the mid-19th century federal funding of a transcontinental rail link to California into their party’s platform.  They did not insist that Nebraska self-finance its section. Corruption was rife in the project, as China is experiencing with their HSR, but it’s hard to argue that the Transcontinental Railroad was a mistake. In fact, it’s hard to see how the US could have become an industrial powerhouse without it.  

A train in a museum display going nowhere, rather like Heritage's vision for the US transportation system. Photo by the author.
It’s just as difficult to imagine how the US can sustain its global economic position today if it fails to embrace the same transportation technology now in place in Germany, Japan, and China. Nobody gets ahead if they let their fears paralyze them. Let’s hope the Heritage Foundation and its allies get over their rail-phobia soon.

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