I've been sucked into the vortex of High Speed Rail cost/benefit analyses this last week. The backlash has begun against Obama's decision to supplement the usual torrent of highway spending with about $15 billion in rail infrastructure improvements.
In the online New York Times, Edward Glaeser published a series of posts on a hypothetical HSR line between Houston and Dallas, arguing that the economic benefits don't pencil out. Eric Morris used the Times' Freakonomics blog to say basically the same thing for HSR in general. Then Robert Samuelson wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post on what he sees as the 'boondoggle' of rail. Two of the three, approvingly reference the perennial Randall O'Toole.
Prominent bloggers were on this right away. Ryan Advent responded to Glaeser blow-by-blow in StreetsBlog, and Yonah Freemark took a closer look at the numbers Glaeser used in the Infrastructurist. I should add that these criticisms were echoed by a number of really perceptive commenters. Here are some of the conceptual problems they found with the analysis:
- You have to consider alternatives. Glaeser and Morris compare the cost of implementing HSR to the cost of doing nothing, but, given projected population increases, doing nothing is not a viable option. Full cost accounting of continually widening highways and adding more flights needs to be part of the equation.
- Energy prices are a crucial factor. All are in agreement that HSR is more energy-efficient, so it's performance relative to other modes will inevitably be accentuated if energy costs rise. Glaeser bases his numbers on the assumption that energy costs will remain steady for the next 20 years, but there is no reason to believe this assumption is true.
- Just because conditions are not right everywhere right now doesn't mean that are not right anywhere. The Houston to Dallas route Glaeser uses to debunk HSR is not currently being proposed. Samuelson brings up the nonsensical fact that U.S. has an average density of 86 people per square mile, which makes it unsuitable for trains (I'm sure the whole world has an even lower population density, making the world unsuitable for trains). The point is that some places are denser than others, and those are places where HSR is being proposed.
- Major infrastructure improvements are always long-term investments that may not reap a return for many years. We have been willing to be more patient with other major projects in the past, including the federal interstate system.
For the story of the automobile industry's early public awareness campaign to defeat rail, see the book Getting There. For their public awareness campaign to displace pedestrians from city streets, see Fighting Traffic.
Like always, this just means you need to make up your own mind about things.