In Defense of High-Speed Rail

Today on the Streetsblog Network, we’ve got a post from Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic
on the importance of funding both intercity and intracity rail, despite
limits on the amount of money available. Freemark takes on the argument
that investment in transportation within cities should trump the construction of more efficient rail connections between cities:

3364437579_394531742a.jpgHigh-speed trains in Taiwan. Photo: loudtiger/Flickr.

[I]nvestment is needed in both
intercity and intracity
corridors. Claiming that we should not fund high-speed rail because
urban transit is more important is equivalent to saying that federal
subsidies to air travel and non-urban highways should simply end,
because metropolitan areas need more investment and travel between
cities is less important.

The U.S. certainly has “scarce resources” at the
moment; the $9 trillion government deficit over the next ten years will
likely force budget cuts and require a reevaluation of spending in all
executive branches, including the Department of Transportation. But the
question here is not whether to invest in urban or long-distance travel
systems. The country continues to grow relatively quickly, and both
in-city and intercity travel demand will have to be met. Thus, we
simply cannot devote all funds currently designated for the latter type
of travel to the former; while we certainly should commit more funds to
urban transit, we also need to find new and better ways to move between
cities, since more and more people will be doing exactly that.…

Arguing
that improving urban transit should be prioritized over high-speed rail
is acceptable, but ignoring the needs of long-distance travel is not.
The United States has a serious need to invest in both intercity and
intracity travel, and for trips of between 200 and 600 miles between
large cities, high-speed rail is usually the most appropriate
investment. In the pursuit of better transit within a city, we cannot
forget that we also need to get between cities.

Be sure to also check out the piece Freemark had Tuesday on The Infrastructurist, in which he sharpened his pencil and re-ran the numbers on Ed Glaeser’s unfavorable analysis of high-speed rail on the New York Times website. Freemark writes:

By
populating his model with a better set of assumptions, we hope to show
how badly the economist missed the mark even on his handpicked example
of an HSR link between Houston and Dallas. In reality, a well-designed
high speed intercity rail project between the two largest cities in
Lone Star State would likely produce a net economic benefit — not at
all the white elephant Glaeser suggests. In this more comprehensive
model that takes into account trivialities like regional population
growth and a reality-based route, the annual benefits total $840
million compared with construction and maintenance costs of $810
million. Which is to say, our numbers show that HSR pays for itself rather handily.

St. Louis Urban Workshop takes the stuffing out of another HSR hater today. Check out the site’s priceless "re-mix" of Robert Samuelson’s Newsweek piece claiming the Obama Administration’s rail plan is "a high-speed boondoggle."

Plus: How many folding bikes does it take to fill up a parking space? Cyclelicious has the photographic answer, which is sure to especially delight Brompton-lovers.

  • Why are we having a discussion about local transit vs. high speed rail. The US needs both and it easily has enough money to fund both and investments in other types of infrastructure as well. It’s just that the federal spending priorities is a huge military: the regular budget for the Pentagon is now $520 billion, an increase of over $20 billion over last year. That excludes spending on Iraq and Afghanistan. When Clinton left office, the DoD budget was more like $200 billion and even that was way more than was really needed.

    Meanwhile, we’re arguing about where to spend the $8 billion ARRA reserves for HSR and crying about how even that paltry sum came at the expense of local transit. What’s wrong with this picture?

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