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Why Colorado Should Not Build High-Speed Rail

IP-5-2009 (June 2009)
Author: Randal O’Toole

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Executive Summary

In February 2009, Congress dedicated $8 billion of stimulus funds to high-speed rail projects. In April 2009, President Obama released his high-speed rail “vision” for America, which includes 8,500 miles that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) had identified as potential high-speed rail routes in 2001. In June, the FRA announced its criteria for states to apply for high-speed rail grants out of the $8 billion in stimulus funds.

Yet the FRA has no estimates how much high-speed rail will ultimately cost, who will ride it, who will pay for it, and whether the benefits can justify the costs. A realistic review shows that high-speed rail will be extremely costly and will add little to American mobility or environmental quality.

The best available data indicate that the FRA plan will cost about $90 billion, or roughly one-fifth the inflation- adjusted cost of the Interstate Highway System. This plan will provide trains with average speeds of 140- 150 miles per hour (mph) in California, 75-85 mph in Florida, and moderate-speed trains averaging 55-75 mph in 31 other states.

The average American will ride these trains less than 60 miles per year, or about 1/70th as much as the average American travels on interstate freeways. In fact, most of the taxpayers who pay for high-speed trains will rarely or never use them. Because of a premium fare structure and downtown orientation, the main patrons of high speed trains will be the wealthy and downtown workers, such as bankers, lawyers, and government officials, whose employers pay the fare.

A true high-speed rail system, with average speeds of 140-150 mph connecting major cities in 33 states, would cost well over $500 billion. Meeting political demands to close gaps in the system could bring the cost close to $1 trillion. At twice the cost of the Interstate Highway System, such a true high-speed rail system would provide less than 1/10th the mobility offered by the interstates.

These costs include only the projected capital costs. States that decide to build moderate- or high-speed rail may be responsible for cost overruns, operating losses, and the costs of replacing and rehabilitating equipment about every 30 years.

Upgrading Colorado tracks between the New Mexico and Wyoming borders and west from Denver to Grand Junction, Aspen, and Craig to run trains at 110 mph would cost taxpayers around $2.5 billion, or about $500 for every Colorado resident. Building new tracks for true high-speed rail would cost at least $45 billion, or well over $9,000 per Colorado resident. Subsidizing train operations will cost tens of millions more per year. Yet the average Coloradoan will take a round trip on such trains only once every few years.

Far from being an environmental savior, high- and moderate-speed trains are likely to do more harm to the environment than good. In intercity travel, automobiles are already as energy-efficient as Amtrak, and the energy efficiencies of both autos and airliners are growing faster than trains. The energy cost of constructing new high-speed rail lines will dwarf any operational savings. As the state of Florida concluded in 2005, “the environmentally preferred alternative is the No Build Alternative.”

To add insult to injury, the administration is likely to require states that accept high-speed rail funds to regulate property rights in a futile effort to discourage driving and promote rail travel. These regulations will deny rural landowners the right to develop their land while they make urban housing unaffordable and disrupt neighborhoods through the construction of high density housing.

For all of these reasons—high costs, tiny benefits, and interference with property rights—Colorado should not attempt to provide high-speed rail service. Instead, it should use its share of the $8 billion stimulus funds, if it gets any, solely for incremental upgrades, such as safer grade crossings and signaling systems, that do not obligate state taxpayers to pay future operations and maintenance costs.