New York Times Asks Wrong People Why HSR Is Struggling
Rather than ask a bunch of HSR experts about the reasons why President Obama’s high speed rail plans are struggling (answer: Republicans), the New York Times asked a bunch of HSR critics and opponents. It should be no surprise that the resulting article misses some important points:
While Republican opposition and community protests have slowed the projects here, transportation policy experts and members of both parties also place blame for the failures on missteps by the Obama administration — which in July asked Congress for nearly $10 billion more for high-speed initiatives.
Instead of putting the $11 billion directly into those projects, critics say, the administration made the mistake of parceling out the money to upgrade existing Amtrak service, which will allow trains to go no faster than 110 miles per hour. None of the money originally went to service in the Northeast Corridor, the most likely place for high-speed rail.
Notice how the article dismisses by far the most important two reasons for HSR’s slow pace to instead make the rather odd argument that Obama erred in not pouring all the money into the Northeast Corridor.
The problem is that was exactly what President Bill Clinton did in the 1990s. His high speed rail plan wound up focusing solely on what became the Acela, at the expense of building other lines across the country. The NEC deserves true HSR, absolutely. But there’s no way to build a national network by focusing solely on that route.
Of course, in 2009, President Obama never thought that he would be unable to add further federal funding for HSR. I’m sure that pouring more money into the NEC was something they always intended to do – until Republicans came along to undermine HSR at every possible turn.
The Times article goes out of its way to distort President Obama’s intentions:
Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin, all led by Republican governors, canceled high-speed rail projects and returned federal funds after deeming the projects too expensive and unnecessary.
That was their surface justification, and even those claims were false. Those Republicans governors killed those worthy, affordable projects out of ideological spite.
“The Obama administration’s management of previously appropriated high-speed rail funding has been as clumsy as its superintending of the Affordable Care Act’s rollout,” said Frank N. Wilner, a former chief of staff at the Surface Transportation Board, a bipartisan body with oversight of the nation’s railroads.
When Mr. Obama first presented his vision for high-speed rail nearly four years ago, he described a future of sleek bullet trains hurtling passengers between far-flung American cities at more than 200 m.p.h.
“Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail,” Mr. Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union address. “This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying — without the pat-down.”
Comparing HSR to the ACA is ridiculous. But so too is the portrayal of Obama’s HSR plan here by the Times. They make it sound like connecting 80% of the population was some irrational, gargantuan task.
In reality, most Americans live in urban areas that are not far from other urban areas, certainly under four hours by high speed train. The distances from, say, Chicago to St. Louis, or Dallas to Houston, or Atlanta to Charlotte, are about the same as distances in European or Asian nations with successful HSR systems.
Notably, the Times article completely ignores the fact that China built an entire nationwide HSR network, in a country about the size of the lower 48 states, in the same time as Obama has been president. Obama’s plans weren’t flawed, if anything they weren’t ambitious enough. But they would have worked out fine if Republicans hadn’t sabotaged them from day one.
Unfortunately, the Times misses these points in part because most of the people they quoted are critics who are at best weak supporters of HSR in general:
“The idea that we would have a high-speed system that 80 percent of Americans could access in that short period of time was unadulterated hype, and it didn’t take an expert to see through it,” said Kenneth Orski, the editor and publisher of an influential transportation newsletter who served in the Nixon and Ford administrations. “And scattering money all around the country rather than focusing it on areas ripe for high-speed rail didn’t help.”
Orski is simply wrong here, and he should know better. The money wasn’t “scattered all around the country,” it was indeed focused on areas ripe for HSR, where existing passenger rail lines saw growing ridership and where population size resembled those of the European lines. The routes in Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio that the Republican governors killed were all ripe for high speed rail. To say otherwise is to not understand how HSR works.
The Times then quotes Jeff Denham saying the private sector should do this, even though it’s virtually impossible for the private sector to raise the capital needed to build an HSR line. Ironically, the very lines that the Times and Denham praise for being privately funded are lines that Obama wanted to fund:
Mr. Lawless said that the 240-mile Dallas to Houston route was ideal for high-speed rail and that it would make travel times between the two cities faster than by car and competitive with airlines. “Given the traffic, the growth occurring and the dynamics of the Texas economy, plus the movement between the two metro areas, the demand for this project is very substantial,” Mr. Lawless said.
That is exactly the same rationale and basis for the other routes in Obama’s plan (which included Dallas to Houston), yet the Times doesn’t grasp that rather important point. Instead they turn to an anti-HSR voice to make the amazing claim that the US will just never have a national HSR system, unlike the rest of the developed world:
Still, even if the California, Florida and Texas projects all succeed, transportation experts say it is unlikely that the United States will ever have the same kind of high-speed rail systems as China or Europe.
C. William Ibbs, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, said countries with successful high-speed rail projects had higher population densities, higher gas prices, higher rates of public-transportation use and lower rates of car ownership. “So it wouldn’t make any sense to have a high-speed rail train in most areas of the United States,” he said. “The geography is different and other factors are just too different.”
Ibbs is also deeply opposed to HSR, despite all the evidence in favor of it. His statistical claims are factually wrong – many parts of the US actually have similar densities to European nations with HSR. Spain found that most of the people coming to their initial AVE line between Madrid and Sevilla came from the automobile. Ibbs is also wrong that you need density, high gas prices, low car ownership, and high gas prices to make HSR work. After all, the Acela is profitable and has high ridership even though the Northeast Corridor doesn’t fit the criteria Ibbs laid out.
The only reason why President Obama hasn’t had more success with HSR is because Congressional Republicans have refused to give that success to him. Simple as that. The Times had to go out of its way to tell a different story, one that the evidence just doesn’t support.