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Go slow on high-speed trains

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POSTED: May 22, 2009 5:14 p.m.
With wide-eyed naivete, proponents of a high-speed rail are pointing to service in Europe and Asia as reasons that such networks are the next great thing in transportation for the United States. But Americans will travel a lot further on the hype over President Barack Obama’s pledge of $8 billion in economic stimulus funds for high-speed rail than any money will go.
The prospect of a time-saving bullet train between Atlanta and Charlotte or Atlanta and Raleigh is thrilling. Analysts suggest that a train like France’s TGV, which averages 155 mph, could cut the four-hour drive between Atlanta and Charlotte to about 90 minutes. The 6-1/2 hour drive to Raleigh could take just 2-1/2 hours. (TGV’s schedule shows a trip about the Charlotte-Atlanta distance — Paris to Nantes — actually takes 140 minutes.)
The first question, however, is, “Why?” Why would the hard-working taxpayers of Georgia and North Carolina — indeed, any taxpayer — want to foot the estimated $1.4 billion bill on a 244-mile project between Atlanta and Charlotte? Georgia already struggles to meet the entire state’s transportation needs with a $2 billion annual budget. And why, especially, when flights and road capacity are already adequate for those who need to make the trip? Would residents decide to commute between the two cities if the trip were “only” 90 minutes each way?  Would passenger trips justify this mega-region “investment” or is this a money pit of a make-work project? Policy-makers need to approach with caution the numerous feasibility studies in which consultants with a romance-the-rail agenda also “romance” ridership projections and economic development potential.
Second, Americans need to know the cost of developing a national high-speed rail network. The $8 billion is described as a jump-start, but it’s more an inch-forward. The current shortfalls in maintaining and enhancing existing transportation infrastructure are overwhelming.  Last month, the Federal Transit Administration warned that more than one-third of the equipment and facilities of the nation’s seven largest rail transit agencies are in disrepair, needing $50 billion for repairs and $5.9 billion a year for maintenance.
California alone estimates it would cost $45 billion to construct its high-speed network linking San Francisco, San Jose, the Central Valley and Los Angeles with trains traveling 220 mph. (Obama allocated $48 billion in transportation funds for the entire nation in the economic stimulus package.) Transportation infrastructure projects are notorious at low-balling costs: A Reason Foundation analysis found the final price tag actually at $65 billion to $81 billion.
The American Planning Association reported in 2002 that costs are underestimated in 90 percent of transportation infrastructure projects; for rail projects, actual costs are on average 45 percent higher than estimated. And in 2005, it found rail passenger forecasts are over-estimated by about 106 percent. (It also found about half of road project traffic forecasts off by more than 20 percent; but as many were underestimated as over-estimated.)
“The key policy implication for this consequential and highly expensive field of public policy is that those legislators, administrators, bankers, media representatives and members of the public who value honest numbers should not trust the cost estimates presented by infrastructure promoters and forecasters,” the authors warned.
Those who point abroad to examples of high-speed rail’s “success” conveniently neglect to mention that population density and the inconvenience and high cost of driving in these regions make trains more attractive, increasing ridership and reducing the passenger subsidies — and those government subsidies are already enormous. Also, they operate on exclusive tracks not shared with freight, with separate rights of way, wider curves and little grade.
This is not to say the time for high-speed rail will never come. Proponents of Georgia’s Northern Arc recognize the cost of failing to plan for the future. Preparation is key and policy-makers and planners have a responsibility to pave the way for when the need and benefits justify the technology. The challenge of acquiring exclusive right-of-way for the proposed corridors is enormous — and growing. In Georgia, moving from cost-effective bus-rapid transit to commuter rail to high-speed rail (as justified) all requires right of way. Buy it now while land prices and population density are low. Then make the next generation of rail the template: If commuter rail becomes a part of Georgia’s future, the enhanced corridors must be adaptable to high-speed rail. Most of all, never hinder the freight rail corridors so crucial to economic progress.
As the competition begins, Georgia’s policy-makers need to keep in mind the principles of good transportation policy: congestion relief and mobility. Then, prioritize projects and differentiate between “investing” and “squandering” taxpayer funds. For now, with transportation reauthorization legislation coming up soon in Congress, the best approach is to go slow on high-speed rail, or see critically needed funds diverted from existing transportation modes.

Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy.
 

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