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The High-Speed Rail Stimulus?

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"The High-Speed Rail Stimulus?"

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John Judis has an article expressing skepticism that Barack Obama’s stimulus is of the right size and nature to meet our present challenges that winds up touching on a subject near and dear to my heart—high-speed rail:

One area that is ripe for such investment–and that is not, from what I have seen, a declared priority of the Obama administration–is high-speed rail. Amtrak’s Acela trains–the closest thing we have to one–average less than 100 mph between Washington D.C. and Boston, whereas trains in Western Europe and Japan go more than twice as fast. Many of them also run on electricity. They would be the most energy-efficient and quickest means of getting between places like Boston and New York, or Los Angeles and San Francisco. But they would require a massive investment. For instance, installing high-speed rail in the Northeast corridor could cost about $32 billion, while California’s high-speed rail system would require up to $40 billion. A system that would address the other areas of the country could easily raise the cost to the hundreds of billions. The House transportation and infrastructure committee has currently proposed $5 billion in stimulus funds for intercity rail–not even a down payment on what it would cost to convert the U.S. to high-speed rail.

Investing in high-speed rails would be very expensive, but unlike tax cuts–the benefits of which can be siphoned off in the purchase of imported goods–the money spent would go directly to reviving American industry and improving the country’s trade balance. That doesn’t just mean jobs creating dedicated tracks or new rail stations: Though the U.S. abandoned train manufacturing decades ago to the French, Germans, Canadians, and Japanese, this kind of production could be undertaken by our ailing auto companies or aircraft companies–if the federal and state governments were to place orders. And building trains that would run on electricity would be a paradigmatic example of the “green jobs” that Obama often touts.

Like Special Agent Mulder, I want to believe in this. In particular, I do believe that it would be a good idea to make these kind of investments. But I also know that many people hear about the idea of spending $40 billion in California and $32 billion in the Northeast and maybe comparable amounts to build HSR systems in Florida and the rust belt and they start to blanche. So now that all of a sudden there’s broad political consensus in favor of adding a few hundred billion dollars to the deficit, I really want to put my hand up and say “hey! look over here! some productive infrastructure investments we should make!”

The trouble is this—how much high-speed rail could you really build on a 24 month month time frame? When you think about the permitting, environmental review, NIMBY lawsuits, etc. it’s plausible to imagine it taking 24 months to just finish all the lawsuits much less build anything. Spain decided to build its first high-speed rail line, from Madrid to Seville, in 1986 and it seems to have taken five years:

On 11 October 1986 the Spanish government decided to build a new railway between Madrid and Seville. On 25 February 1988, the international tender for the acquisition of 24 high-speed trains AVE followed; these trains were ordered by 23 December 1988. The first train, based on the third generation of TGVs, was delivered on 10 October 1991.

In December 1988 it was decided to build the new line in standard gauge. Construction was ordered on 16 March 1989, and it lasted for 33 months; actual construction activity lasted only 24 months. Commercial use of the line commenced on 21 April 1992. In the first weeks, over 23 thousand passengers used the new trains – an occupancy rate of 81%.

On 20 April 1992, services started between Madrid and Seville. Non-stop travel time between the two cities were 2:45 hrs; with stops at Ciudad Real, Puertollano and Córdoba it was 2:55 hrs. In 1992, tickets cost around 50-70 euros in second class, in first class over 100 euros.

Now presumably if the intention was specifically to do this as a hurry-up project you could do it somewhat faster. But then on the other hand, Madrid-Seville Line is shorter than the kind of projects Judis is talking about. And the Spanish didn’t try to create a train-building industry from scratch—they bought French trains.

Long story short, I don’t think it’s some kind of inexplicable scandal that comprehensive high-speed rail construction isn’t the centerpiece of the Obama stimulus agenda. But I do think it’s very distressing that I’m not seeing any effort to think this issue through at all. Sure as I am that it’s not feasible to undertake $100 billion in new HSR construction over the next two years, I’m also absolutely certain that it’s possible to undertake more than $0.00 in such new construction. And these really are infrastructure investments that are worth doing for reasons totally independent of the need for stimulus. If the economy were doing okay, I’d be saying we need to be finding a way to pay for this stuff. But the economy’s not doing okay so instead we need to find things that are worth spending money on. And high-speed rail definitely fits the bill. How much is feasible? I don’t know. But I do know that if I had all the resources of the federal government at my disposal I’d be looking into it.

I will say that I think the plan to try to create a domestic train-producing industry is a little bit misguided. Among other things, the US and Canadian economies are so integrated that having US stimulus money get into the hands of a Canadian manufacturer like Bombardier would be about as good as it getting into the hands of a US manufacturer. And for related reasons, it’s much more plausible to think that if North American demand for rolling stock increased dramatically that foreign firms would start locating plants in the United States to meet that demand than that we would actually start up a brand new firm. Just from the perspective of getting a system set up, it makes a lot more sense to buy trains that we know actually work made by people who have experience in the field than to try to reinvent the wheel.

But I would go further than Judis in other respects. What about rail projects other than intercity high-speed rail? In particular, where are the studies of what we can do to speed up completion of currently envisioned programs? Both the Silver Line to Dulles Airport in Fairfax County and the Westside “subway to the sea” in LA are projected to be completely sometime after pigs fly at this point. In part, that reflects logistical realities. But my understanding is that in both cases the issue in part has to do with financing. Can’t we fight the recession in part by doing this stuff faster? And LA and DC can’t be the only metro areas in that boat. Accelerate the Second Avenue Subway, put in streetcars, etc. There are clearly limits to what can be done, but someone needs to be identifying those limits and making sure we walk up close to them rather than just getting discouraged and turning around.

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