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High Speed Spending

Opinion Editorial
January 30, 2009

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) recently asked the states for proposals on how to spend the $8 billion of stimulus money that Congress allocated to high-speed rail. Which raises a question: Would you pay $1,000 so that someone — probably not you — can ride high-speed trains less than 60 miles a year?

That’s what the FRA’s high-speed rail plan is going to cost: at least $90 billion, or $1,000 for every federal income taxpayer in the country.

That’s only the beginning. Count on adding $400 per person for cost overruns. Taxpayers will also have to cover operating losses: Amtrak currently loses $28 to $84 per passenger in most of its short-distance corridors.

The FRA plan also has huge gaps, including the entire Rocky Mountains. Once states start building high-speed rail, you can expect local politicians to demand these gaps be filled at your expense. And don’t be surprised when the government asks for billions more in 30 years to rebuild what will then be a worn-out system.

What would we get for all this money? In most of the country, the FRA is merely proposing to boost the top speeds of Amtrak trains from 79 to 110 miles per hour. A top speed of 110 mph means average speeds of only 60 to 70 mph, which is hardly revolutionary. Many American railroads were running trains that fast 70 years ago.

The pro-rail Center for Clean Air Policy predicts the FRA system would carry Americans 20.6 billion passenger miles a year in 2025. That sounds like a lot, but, given predicted population growth, it is just 58 miles per person.

The FRA left Colorado out of its plan, but the homegrown Rocky Mountain Rail Authority wants high-speed trains from Albuquerque to Cheyenne and west to Aspen, Craig and Grand Junction. Upgrading existing tracks in Colorado to 110 mph standards would cost $2.5 billion. Building new lines for true high-speed trains would cost tens of billions of dollars, or something close to $9,000 for every Colorado resident.

Yet the Colorado Department of Transportation says that such trains will do little to relieve congestion in the I-70 corridor. Mainly they will just fatten the wallets of rail contractors.

Who would ride these trains? We can get an idea by comparing fares between New York and Washington, D.C.

As of this writing, $99 will get you from Washington to New York in two hours and 50 minutes on Amtrak’s high-speed train, while $49 pays for a moderate-speed train ride that takes three hours and 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, relatively unsubsidized and energy-efficient buses cost $20 for a four-hour-and-15-minute trip with leather seats and free Wi-Fi. Airfares start at $119 for a one-hour flight.

Who would pay an extra $79 of their own money to save less than 90 minutes of their time? Those wealthy enough to value their time that highly would pay the extra $20 to take the plane. The train’s only advantage is for people going from downtown to downtown.

Who works downtown? Bankers, lawyers, government officials and other high-income people who hardly need subsidized transportation. Not only will you pay $1,000 for someone else to ride the train, that someone probably earns more than you.

Nor is high-speed rail good for the environment. The Department of Energy says that, in intercity travel, automobiles are as energy-efficient as Amtrak, and that boosting Amtrak trains to higher speeds will make them less energy-efficient and more polluting than driving.

High-speed rail will cost you a lot of money, and provide little benefit to anyone except a few bankers, lawyers and bureaucrats. That’s not change we can believe in.

This article originally appeared in the Denver Post, June 27th, 2009.