Growing Awareness That the Cost of Doing Nothing is Not Zero
I really like the first half of this post at Christian Science Monitor by Andrew Holland explaining why California and the Northeast need high speed rail. He clearly understands that HSR’s costs have to be assessed in context:
When opponents talk about the high costs of high speed rail (and they are high), they are comparing it to the cost of doing nothing. But that’s not an option. Building new interstate highways has a cost per mile from $5 million up to beyond $20 million. In California, the state estimates that building the same amount of transportation capacity as the full high speed rail plan in highways and airport infrastructure would cost $114 billion, vs. the projected rail cost of $68 billion. On the East Coast, I suspect the numbers would be similar, or even more disparate, as the land for highway expansion is simply not available.
And that’s before you add in the costs of fueling those planes and automobiles – since they don’t run on renewable energy, the cost of burning fossil fuels is only going to keep rising.
But the latter part of the post doesn’t quite make sense to me:
Finally, a note about what I said in yesterday’s post about my skepticism about the funding model: government funding to government-sponsored companies. I take Amtrak between Washington and the New York area pretty often (my family lives in northern New Jersey) and the level of service and attention to detail drives me crazy. From the 1970s-era cars to the overpriced microwaved food, there is much that can be improved. Even on the few occasions when I travel by the Acela (only when someone else is paying), it’s a better experience, but still doesn’t meet levels I’ve seen when I’ve taken the train in Spain, Japan, or France. That said, it is better than domestic air travel these days, so I’m not sure that outright privatizing of the line would make it better. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Mica has proposed legislation that would privatize Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, and there is some logic to that: this section (the only part of Amtrak that makes money) is used to cross-subsidize the other routes that lose money for every passenger.
He does realize that trains in Spain and France are owned and operated by the government, right? And there are quality services on Amtrak routes in the U.S. – the Coast Starlight, for example, has great amenities and food. An increasing number of those coaches and sleepers have been modernized. Amtrak California’s trains are modern, dating to the 1990s or newer, and while the food options aren’t ideal, they’re not any worse than what you get on an airplane.
Holland is falling into the trap of assuming that just because something is government run, the quality is less than you’d get in the private sector. In both cases the issue is raising the money in order to fund better service quality. The private sector can do so by going to investors or charging higher fares, but as the airlines have shown even that has limits. The public sector could go to their investors (i.e. taxpayers) as well as raise fares, and those have their limits too. But again, the models of Spanish and French HSR are obvious evidence that government can run train service and provide a good experience at the same time.
William Lind, one of the only conservative activists in favor of rail (he writes for the American Conservative’s Center for Public Transportation) has made a coherent case that the big-government highway-building program of the ‘50s and ’60 undermined the free-market passenger rail companies. In a world where private actors paid the full cost of transportation, I think rail would still win — but until government gets out of the highway and airport business, there must be a role for government in the rail business too.
What free-market passenger rail companies are these? Many American railroads were built with huge capital subsidies from government. Further, why should private actors pay the full cost of transportation? Those costs can be very high, even prohibitive, if left to the private sector to fund alone. Government can bring the cost down through subsidies, which provide a significant economic boost to the country by making transportation affordable. Since there’s no good reason at all for the government to stop being involved in the funding and operation of highways and airports – a system that’s worked just fine for nearly 60 years – and since government operation of trains has often worked out well, it’s clear that it’s perfectly fine for government to operate bullet trains in America. Holland appears to be looking at this issue solely through an ideological lens, but in the real world, government operation is a pragmatic and affordable method that ought to be continued where possible.