High-speed boondoggle

|  April 23, 2009 |

Last Thursday President Obama announced his desire to launch a nationwide high-speed passenger rail network. There are two glaring shortcomings to this plan, either of which pretty well guarantees that all we’d be doing is creating a high-speed version of Amtrak — ghost trains flying down the tracks (faster than ever before!) with nobody on them save for a few befuddled tourists.

First: If you look at the proposed routes for the high-speed rail network, all the routes are already well served by airlines. If you’re a business traveler, are you going to take the three and a half hour train from Birmingham to New Orleans, or the one-hour flight on Southwest Airlines?

Second: except for New York City, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, none of the other 30-plus cities on the map have enough public transportation to get you from the train stations to anywhere else in the destination city. Every commercial airport in the country has rental cars. But it’s highly unlikely that the high-speed rail systems will share terminals with the airports and even less likely that the rental car companies will set up new facilities at rail stations in these other cities. Nobody is going to take a high- speed rail trip only to be dumped into the middle of some marginal neighborhood with no safe way to get out.

Where we need the trains and where we need to spend money on public transportation is not to get from city to city, but to get around in our individual cities and from the suburbs into the cities. That’s where the congestion is, that’s where rush-hour automobiles are stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic burning 25 percent of their gas at idle. That’s where the American people are wasting billions of dollars of unproductive time.

European cities, by contrast, benefit from an integrated system. Subways and elevated trains cover the major routes, stopping every 10 or 15 blocks or so. Then buses take you from there so that you never have to walk more than three blocks to access public transportation. You can go from any address in Berlin to any address in Rome on public transportation and never walk more than a quarter mile. Europe’s high-speed rail accounts for just a minuscule fraction of its passenger miles.

Obama’s people should know that the city-centric, urban networks have to be built first, before any city-to-city high-speed rail makes sense. But I suspect that all the starry-eyed whiz-kids riding to Washington on his coat tails have–as tourists and Fulbright scholars–seen some of these shiny new high-speed trains in Europe and Japan and think, “why can’t we do this?” But you need more than a tourist’s eye view of complex issues before you can create good policy. You need research, wisdom, experts (instead of political talk show ninjas); and you need common sense.

Sadly all of these seem lacking. Further complicating the policy process is that neither the conservatives nor liberals have it right. The liberals have such pie-in-the-sky notions about public transportation that they have yet to do the hard work of creating a logical, long-term strategy and mustering the political support to accomplish it. They’re all vision and no execution. Conservatives seem to reflexively hate public transportation and immediately cough up the excuse that it’s going to require massive subsidies, therefore can’t be done. That public transportation requires subsidies is true, but it’s true everywhere else in the world too and that’s just the facts of life. The military, it would seem, requires a fairly massive public subsidy too, but I think I’d rather keep them around than not.

America’s big cities would be substantially more enjoyable if they were networked as tightly with public transportation as Europe’s are. Families could cut back to one car. Soccer moms could spend more time at home and less time schlepping kids and stuck in traffic. People and business would start to migrate back to our downtowns after dark. You could have a drink or two and then relax for the ride home instead of worrying about getting busted for DUI or killing somebody on the drive back.

There’s a myth that Americans cling to their cars because of some perverse need for freedom and independence, therefore public transportation will never work here. That’s nonsense. We cling to our cars because 90 percent of us we don’t have any alternative.

Since the government is bound and determined to spend this money anyway, Obama could actually do a great thing by enabling the cities to build robust public transportation networks. But as long as amateur hour prevails in Washington, they’ll spend the money regardless and we’ll all be the poorer for it.  Something to think about when you’re stuck in traffic tomorrow.

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