Via Steve Teles, Ed Glaeser has a post implying asking “Is President Obama’s vision of hyper-fast trains racing through America a sound transportation policy or a costly boondoggle?” His conclusion implies that it’s a costly boondoggle. I think there are a number of problems with his analysis, but to start with the basics he’s running the numbers on a hypothetical Dallas-Houston High-Speed Rail link. When I first saw the Obama administration’s list of designated corridors this city-pair jumped out at me for not being on the list:
It struck me, intuitively, as a city-pair that would work. But it didn’t seem that way to federal HSR planners. So I don’t really understand why Glaeser is condemning the whole initiative on the basis of an analysis of something that the initiative doesn’t propose doing. Just eyeballing the map, I’d say that some of the corridors here are good ideas and some look like politically inspired boondoggles. But it would be useful to analyze the actual proposals.
The larger issue is that I don’t think it makes a ton of sense to evaluate rail investments in a static way. Typically if you look at a place that doesn’t have any rail, you’ll see that it’s not built densely enough to support rail. But by the same token, if you look at a place that doesn’t have any roads, you invariably find that it’s not built densely enough to support roads. That, however, isn’t a reason not to build a road. Rather, you need to ask yourself “do we want to encourage development in this area, or do we prefer to leave it vacant?” It’s a legitimate question, and one that requires analysis. Similarly, when it comes to new rail investments—be they intercity rail or rail transit—the important thing to ask is usually whether the investment is part of a larger plan to develop the area.