High Speed Rail
Those who have been reading me for some time know my feelings on secession. So you will be surprised to learn that I have had a change of heart. No I am not now of the opinion that states should be able to secede for light and transient causes. Rather, it is time we should forcibly make states secede. And we should start with California.
Despite deepening doubts about the cost and feasibility of a $70 billion high-speed rail proposed to cross California, the State Senate on Friday narrowly approved legislation to spend $8 billion in federal and state money to begin construction, starting with a 130-mile stretch through the rural Central Valley.
The vote came as the federal government threatened to withdraw $3.3 billion in financing for the 520-mile project if the Legislature did not approve the release of state bond money to begin construction. Democrats and Republicans expressed fear that the project could be remembered as a boondoggle passed when the state is struggling through a fiscal crisis.
So the state’s almost bankrupt – what’s a another $70 billion for a project that the citizens desperately want. They do want it, right?
Polls suggests that voters have turned against the project after voting for it in 2008. Several Democrats, in arguing against the expenditure, warned that voters would be less likely to approve a tax package on the ballot this fall that Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, said was necessary to avoid more cuts in spending on education and other programs.
But at least high speed rail is itself a necessary public works project that will reduce traffic congestion and provide millions with a low-cost means of travel.
Weeellllll . . . .
While these criticisms all have merit, we can’t lose sight of the fact the biggest reason high-speed rail won’t work in the U.S. is that it doesn’t make sense as a project funded from general tax revenues. High-speed rail is not a public good and it’s not mass transit. It is corridor transit. At best, it’s a niche market serving a highly specialized, relatively wealthy, and narrow customer base (high-income business travelers with expense accounts and tourists). It won’t relieve urban traffic congestion and its contribution to improving air quality (or reducing carbon dioxide emissions) will be negligible because it won’t carry enough riders to make a big difference. These factors undermine high-speed rail justificatons based on public good arguments.
That said, a more important factor may be more straightforward and direct: Certain preconditions are necessary for corridor transit to work, and they don’t exist in the U.S. Most fundamentally, intercity rail needs to connect major urbandowntowns or large employment centers that are close together–withing a couple hundred miles of each other. (In this respect, the emphasis on density per se is misplaced; the key is the density of the destinations.)
We simply don’t have that many large downtowns in the U.S. We have several midsize metro areas, but the downtowns are mere shadows of their former selves and contain a very small minority of the region’s job base. High-speed rail is doomed to failure under the best of circumstances because it simply can’t generate ridership. Spain and Europe is an interesting case in point: high-speed rail connects very large urban centers with populations in the millions that are closely connected as the “bird flies”: London-Paris, Paris-Brussels, Paris-Lyon, Hamburg-Berlin, Florence-Rome, Madrid-Barcelona. Many of these cities are also very large: London and Paris both boast populations greater than 10 million. Rome, Berlin, Madrid, and Barcelona have populations between 2 million and 5 million.
To recap: the state is bankrupt, the voters don’t want to fund the high speed rail project, and the project would very likely have nowhere near the benefit its proponents suggest it will have.
Why of course it only makes sense to proceed.
Meanwhile, the state is cutting out a few things which might be a tad more critical.
California may very well sink into the ocean one day. Can we just cut it off before it sinks the rest of us?