President Obama and Vice-President Biden spoke stirringly Thursday of the need to improve the service of inter-city rail in America to something closer to the levels found in Japan and Western Europe. Linking cities with trains that arrive in the central city rather than highways that run along the periphery is great urban policy. Downtowns across the country could see increased interest in retail, housing and office space. As Obama said:
“Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city. No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes. Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination.”
The plan to build high speed rail in 11 corridors is currently light on specifics. It is unclear, for instance, how much this would cost, although given that California’s high speed rail is projected to cost $40 billion, it is fair to say that it will be in the hundreds of billions. But so far, only $13 billion ($8 billion in this year’s stimulus package and $1 billion for each of the next five years) has actually been pledged to it. Urban and transportation wonks, such as our friend Ryan Avent, generally praised the proposal. But Chris Beam, Slate“>writing in Slate, makes the same point that I did about California’s plan. High speed train travel, Beam warns, is very expensive to build and, if the Amtrak Acela is any guide, very expensive to ride once it is built.
Should we be spending billions of dollars on a program that will primarily benefit the wealthy? I say yes, although less enthusiastically than some. Making inter-city rail travel faster will make it more competitive with driving and flying and thus help reduce our carbon emissions. (Although it will not, as Vice-President Biden claimed on Thursday help us reduce “our dependence on foreign oil.” Petroleum is a fungible good: It does not really matter where we buy it from; what matters is total global supply and demand. If we only bought oil drilled in America the Chinese and Indians would buy oil from Russia and Saudi Arabia and we would still have an interest in keeping that oil flowing, because if it did not then the reduced supply would increase the cost for everyone, including us.) I also think more inter-city rail passengers could help spur economic activity and development of local transit systems in cities. If we are going to spend this money on something, better it should be rail lines than highways. But I would caution high speed rail enthusiasts that it is no panacea to auto-dependence and suburban sprawl. To address those issues, the federal government must change its policies on a whole host of issues. They should subsidize transit system operating costs right now, redirect far more spending on transit systems in the next Surface Transit Re-authorization, and change tax policies that currently favor buying new homes over renting or renovating. None of those things are as tangible as a shiny new train, but they are considerably more important.
Ben Adler is a journalist in New York. He is a former reporter for Grist, The Nation, Newsweek and Politico, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Republic.