Is high-speed rail the answer? 

I confess to a fascination with proposals to build high-speed rail lines—and to intense skepticism that such lines can provide economically useful transportation in most parts of America. Sharing my skepticism is urbanologist Wendell Cox, writing in the Wall Street Journal. Cox argues that only two high-speed rail lines in the world—the Tokyo-Osaka Bullet Train and the Paris-Lyon TGV—have proved profitable. And he takes particular aim at the high-speed rail project which Barack Obama ballyhooed, and provided $2.6 billion in financing for, on the day after his State of the Union Speech.

That line would run from somewhere in the Tampa Bay area to somewhere in metropolitan Orlando. That’s a 82-mile distance, far shorter than the 300 or so miles covered by the Bullet Train and the Paris-Lyon TGV. The corridor is already served by Interstate 4, and the two major metropolitan areas at either end have very low densities and no significant downtown concentration. Almost no residents of these two metro areas are likely to use the rail line; they can get to where they want to go more easily and quickly by car. The only market would be tourists.

But is that much of a market? Tourist destinations in the two metro areas are dispersed. You can get off the plane at Orlando airport and head to one resort or hotel by dedicated bus transport. But if you want to travel from a Disney hotel to the Universal City theme park, the only good way to do so is by rental car. And if you have to rent a car, why would you want to get on a train only to have to rent a car at the end of the 45-minute trip. Getting to the train station, waiting to get on the train and then renting a car when you get off at another station to get where you are going will, as Cox points out, take more than the 90 minutes you could get there by car.

Nor does it make much more sense to me to build a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, with spurs northward to Sacramento and southward to San Diego. Theoretically the high-speed train could get you from LA to SF in 2 hours and 45 minutes—the time it currently takes the Acela to get from Washington to New York. That would be nice—except that then you’d have to get to wherever in metro LA or the Bay Area that you wanted to go, and the chances are it would be an hour or more drive from the train station. Only a small percentage of LA-bound travelers are headed for downtown Los Angeles; and not that much higher a percentage of Bay Area-bound travelers are headed to downtown San Francisco. And travel times within the metro areas can be long: looking at the map, I figured I could drive from Berkeley to Stanford in less than an hour, but it turned out to be considerably more in real life. In contrast, the airlines can get you closer to most destinations: you have the choice of LAX or Burbank or Ontario or Orange County in metro LA and SFO, Oakland and San Jose in the Bay Area. Similarly, other really large metro areas (New York, Washington, Chicago, Houston, Dallas) give you a choice of airports.

The United States is a continental country in which even high-speed rail lines can’t compete with planes for speed and with autos for flexibility on most routes. Yes, you can connect downtown Milwaukee with downtown Chicago (about 90 miles away), but Houston-Dallas is a longer stretch (240 miles) and the question in these spread-out metro areas is, where do you put the station? Most travelers have destinations other than the historic downtowns and must get in a car at the station to reach them. My thought is it might be more sensible to site high-speed rail terminals at airports rather than in old downtown-oriented rail stations; airports already have plenty of parking and rental car operations. Most of them have plenty of adjacent acreage which might be more available for use than built-up downtown-adjacent space.

High-speed rail does make sense in the Northeast corridor from Boston through New York to Washington. But to achieve the speeds of the Bullet Train or TGV, you need dedicated track, which would be hugely expensive and difficult to obtain in these densely packed metro areas. Any such project would be subject to NIMBY opposition and environmental lawsuits galore. American government, as it is currently practiced, doesn’t have the dirigiste capabilities of government in France or Japan. If Congress were serious about promoting high-speed rail, it would prohibit environmental and eminent domain lawsuits that could delay projects, as it did in the 2006 border fence bill. But don’t bet on that happening. And don’t bet on Congress limiting high-speed rail funding to the Northeast Corridor. Senators and congressmen from the rest of the country would demand their share of the moolah.

There is a central planners’ impulse in American liberals that loves rail travel: it allows credentialed elites to channel everyone else into a specific pathway. It’s fun to draw those lines on maps; when I was a kid I loved to draw maps of imaginary cities on the backs of shirt cardboards my mother saved (I still have a couple of them). But no one has given me the power to design a city myself.

It is an unfortunate fact that rail lines are hugely expensive and inherently incapable of adjusting to changing patterns of business and living. Metro Washington’s beautiful but undermaintained Metro system does not serve Tysons Corner, the second-biggest concentration of office space in the metro area, because its planners in the 1960s and 1970s didn’t anticipate that Tysons would become what it became before the Metro lines were fully completed (even though developers like Til Hazel did). Now a Tysons and Dulles Airport extension is being built at enormous cost.

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Michael Barone

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