Solving "Chronic Air Troubles" with High Speed Rail
In today’s Newsday Bruce Reed and Paul Weinstein, two Democratic policymakers, called for high speed rail as a solution to worsening problems with air travel:
While the laws of supply and demand will undoubtedly correct some of the problems the airline industry faces, the future for air travelers is not so bright. Most economists agree that airline mergers, fewer flights, and new, more fuel-efficient planes will eventually help put the industry on stronger financial ground.
Unfortunately, these very measures will also mean higher prices, less choice, and fewer amenities for passengers. In the short term, passengers have two choices: fly less or pay more for an inferior service. But if the United States is serious about fixing the air-travel mess, there’s a real, long-term solution: high-speed rail.
Which is pretty much the point I’ve been making these last two months – air travel is in serious, long-term, fundamental trouble. If we are to be able to afford to travel around our state, HSR is a necessary solution.
Bruce Reed is the president of the Democratic Leadership Council, the right-leaning group that rose to prominence with Bill Clinton. For Reed to throw his support to high speed rail is a significant shift – the DLC is usually slow to embrace forward-thinking solutions like this, and while the DLC’s influence isn’t what it was, it doesn’t help to have them on our side. If they can help HSR become conventional wisdom, I’ll take it.
In any case, Reed and Weinstein propose a massive national investment in HSR:
Today, however, with the cost of energy skyrocketing, and our air-travel system reaching its limits, demand for rail is outpacing supply.
That’s why the next president and the new Congress should commit to building five new high-speed rail corridors in the next 10 years. The corridors would be selected based on three key criteria: geography (the flatter the terrain, the faster the train); a high probability of use (densely populated corridors with significant levels of highway and airborne traffic); and a commitment by the private sector, states and localities to share in the cost of construction. Wherever possible, the high-speed rail corridors should connect to major air hubs.
This dovetails very well with what California is planning. We have the geography – aside from two mountain passes it’s flat, we have the solid ridership projections, and the shared construction costs. So how do Reed and Weinstein propose paying for the federal share?
Roads and airports have direct sources of financing – namely, taxes on gasoline and ticket purchases. If high-speed rail is going to become a reality, it will need a similarly robust stream of income. That’s why policymakers should establish a trust fund that would finance construction and maintenance. We could pay for this investment in a number of ways: carbon-offset purchases; a 4.3-cent diesel gas tax on the railroad industry that would raise about $200 million a year; ticket surcharges; and/or matching contributions from states served by the new rail lines.
I am less convinced by this. Reed and Weinstein are absolutely right that we “need a similarly robust stream of income” – so why did they propose something that isn’t? Taxing railroad diesel?! That makes little sense. I doubt there would be much money gained, and it would probably have a damaging effect on the non-HSR rail infrastructure, most of which is still in private hands. Here Reed’s DLC colors come out – as a group originally dedicated to getting Democrats to adopt Reaganesque economic policy, they still can’t bring themselves to say the words “consumer gas tax” or “carbon tax” or anything truly robust. HSR isn’t a Reaganesque policy, it’s very much the opposite – so you can’t finance it with 1980s-style solutions.
Still, I give them credit for moving the discussion from the “should we or shouldn’t we?” phase – we answered that question already and clearly in the affirmative – to the “how do we pay for it?” phase. That’s a FAR more productive place for the discussion to be and while I question their specific proposals, at least they suggested an idea. Much more than can be said for the HSR critics, whose suggestions amount to “well just keep driving, we’ll figure something out.”