Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Rail Boondoggle, Moving at High Speed

Robert J. Samuelson of the Washington Post states that Obama should not invest in high speed rail. Samuelson states that Amtrak has, since 1971, received almost $35 billion in subsidies, has 78,000 daily passengers and a typical trip is subsidized by the government by about $50. Samuelson says "Given this, you'd think even the dullest politician wouldn't expand rail subsidies, especially considering the almost $11 trillion in projected federal budget deficits between now and 2019...The costs of high-speed rail would be huge, and the public benefits meager."

He goes on to note that high speed trains in Europe and Japan work because they have high population densities. Japan, density is 880 people per square mile; it's 653 in Britain, 611 in Germany and 259 in France. By contrast, US density is 86 people per square mile. Trains can't pick up most people where they live and work and take them to where they want to go.  Where densities are higher, rail with direct connections between heavily populated city centers and business districts is favorable.

True, Amtrak is federally subsidized which is not ideal but $35 billion over nearly 40 years is tit money to fed. Amtrak has nearly 30 millions passengers a year and this number continues to increase. It's good policy to support rail travel since it is being used and very heavily used in some regions. I'm in favor of high speed rail where economically feasible, along the NEC for sure. But along other places I'm not so sure and I'm fine with a feasibility review being performed before going forward and potentially wasting a lot of money on a high speed train line that would be under utilized. But I am for the federal rail stimulus for use across the US, we need to improve the track infrastructure everywhere in this country so as to improve reliability and maybe even boost train speeds by a little bit. This is good and will be benefit to the economy. It may be a small benefit but even small benefits are good. And note the fed stimulus money funding a lot of these rail improvements is targeted to get us out of this recession, I'd rather have the fed spend the money on rail improvement over giving more money to the banks.


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