Unstoppable? Economists Nix High-Speed Train
Low ridership projections and sketchy financials cloud Obama's transportation vision
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And these skeptics are picking up support from some unlikely places.
In a Nov. 1 column in Newsweek, business writer Robert Samuelson, not exactly a tea-party type, railed against the administration's $10.5 billion investment in U.S. high-speed lines.
"That's just a token down payment," writes Samuelson, who figures that the cost to build out the country's 13 planned high-speed corridors "would easily approach $200 billion."
Citing California's 33 percent increase in cost projections before the first shovel of dirt was turned there, CNN went even higher. It pegged the initial national price tag at $500 billion.
As the numbers soar, transportation analysts remain downbeat on ridership.
"Even assuming 250,000 high-speed rail passengers, there would be no visible effect on routine commuting, let alone personal driving," Samuelson says. "In the Northeast Corridor, with about 45 million people, Amtrak's daily ridership is 28,500. If its trains shut down tomorrow, no one except the affected passengers would notice."
UCLA economists Leah Platt Boustan and Allison Shertzer say America's sprawling growth patterns -- especially in post World War II boom states like Florida -- are a bad fit for fixed transit systems.
"Only in places with greater population densities, such as Europe and Asia, is high-speed rail potentially attractive," Samuelson notes.
But even there, most of the existing high-speed trains don't earn "enough revenue to cover both their construction and operating costs," according to a Congressional Research Service report.
Pointing to the clogged Interstate-4 corridor in Central Florida, proponents of Florida's Tampa-Orlando venture believe it will attract heavy ridership. That's the bet of a European consortium and others that plan to bid on the project.
As reported by Sunshine State News, the Florida Department of Transportation will seek "concession"-style proposals from contractors who will bring their own financing.
But with a $2 billion kick-start from the federal government, skeptical Floridians see a financial black hole for the state's taxpayers.
In the meantime, transportation analyses say much of that I-4 traffic is essentially intra-city, not inter-city. And without efficient ground transportation infrastructure at each end stop, the supposed time savings of high-speed rail would disappear.
"High-speed rail would subsidize a tiny group of travelers and do little else," Samuelson says.
"President Obama calls high-speed rail essential 'infrastructure' when it's actually old-fashioned 'pork barrel.' The interesting question is why it retains its intellectual respectability. The answer, it seems, is willful ignorance. People prefer fashionable make-believe to distasteful realities. They imagine public benefits that don't exist and ignore costs that do."
The Reason Foundation, a conservative/libertarian think tank in California, reports that even high-speed trains in Europe and Asia struggle financially.
"Only two lines -- Paris-Lyon in France and Tokyo-Osaka in Japan -- have recovered their capital costs. And every system still requires massive ongoing subsidies," Reason states.
Such arguments will surely resonate with incoming Gov. Rick Scott, who has bridled at any suggestion that the state should pay for any portion of the Tampa-Orlando line, or any other rail venture.
Tea party activists, who helped fuel Scott's insurgent campaign against government spending, have turned up the heat on the rail project since he was elected. Many suggest that job-creation estimates for the train venture are overblown and temporary.
With hard-nosed allies like Samuelson, tea partiers may find that Florida's high-speed train may not be "unstoppable" after all.
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.