High Speed Rail on the Freakonomics Blog

Eric Morris on the Freakonomics blog takes up the issue of high-speed rail and offers a reasoned, and unique to the public debate, focus on the limitations of the mode’s promised environmental benefits.

There are so many things to think about here, it’s hard to know where to begin. First, the very fact that we have consultants even doing lifeline environmental analysis of rail is a step forward for the discourse around rail. Yes, it has environmental costs, too, especially something like high-speed rail which fragments habitats, for instance. Back in the day, this is something that was never raised surrounding rail, much to my irritation.

What’s my expert opinion on high-speed rail? From my perspective, changing intra-regional travel to lower impact modes, like walking, is a much more pressing and cost-effective climate change strategy.

While I do not deny the very real evidence of climate change, I am terrified when I look at the data for actually intervening in climate change. It is the elephant in the room for those worried about climate change: if we admit it looks futile, then nothing will get done and it will, in fact, be futile. But all our hoping for best and advising for the best does not mean that changing things still won’t be futile. The power of positive thinking here has to meet reality. Maybe the economic downtown will dampen population growth a bit, but still. Given population figures, I tend to favor strategies that have high potential co-benefits and lower costs. HSR has some of the former and just way too much for the latter.

David Levinson’s estimate for HSR comes in at $80 million. Last year, I had my students cost out the HSR, and the estimates ran from $110 billion to $81 billion. That’s more than Obama has set aside for foster kids for the entire country. Do you know what we could do for foster kids with $80 billion? Bus riders? Schools? No, these are not separate issues no matter how various sector advocates and institutions would have us think of them. Fiscal capacity is finite.

If we are really talking about saving car trips, the bigger potential markets are likely to be intra-regional, not inter-regional, like HSR. To be metaphorical for a second, HSR is a gold-plated response to climate change when we should perhaps be thinking about stainless steel. It’s like insisting that we have a $2K tiara when we can’t afford pants.

HSR is being sold on environmental benefits, as usual with rail, but the reasons why its backers love it so much because they see dollar signs. Federal capital subsidies, right now, and more subsequent growth in inter-regional tourism and economic activity, particularly for Central Valley communities. All good things. But worth the money not spent on other things, like schools or inter-city transit? Ehhhhh. The assumption among its environmental proponents is that HSR will cut out air travel and auto trips. It may do so, in the short term, but in the end it will, like most new supply, provide capacity for additional travel between SF and southern California. These additional trips will be in a mode that has fewer emissions than the other two, great, but the other two are not going to reduce appreciably in the long term with growth in overall demand. There is a difference between disciplining demand for dirtier modes entirely and simply providing extra capacity in a cleaner (and jollier) mode. The first is a stick; the second is a carrot with no stick. In transport policy, we are addicted to the latter.

If we are worried about carbon emissions and we want HSR because we want the travel option, the way to get this system built is to apply a carbon tax to fuel consumption across all modes and then use the money to juice up transit provision in general, as quickly as possible. But instead, we continue to do what we have always done: throw money at big systems up front, taking the money from everywhere else to pay off bond obligations rather than presenting travelers with the real prices of their travel consumption choices. Then we ply them with carrot after carrot. This strategy means politicians get to stand in front of big projects and say they have Struck A Blow for the environment, environmental NGOs get to to do the same, and the cost is carried by socially devalued services (like education–3.1 billion in cuts, any one?) and unpopular minorities (like poor people who rely on public education.)

We can talk about whether fuel taxes “tax the poor off the road” another day. As for predictions, this is going to be California’s Big Dig. It will set records for costs and over-runs. It will be a beautiful and wonderful service when it is done. And I (and a whole bunch of other people) will get a book out of it.