The LA Times features Rand’s Martin Wachs in this story, describing how the state of California is probably going to have to go it alone if it wants to build high speed rail. I told you so, California, four years ago! Here’s the money quote:
The project’s first phase would take the rail from downtown San Francisco to Anaheim for an estimated $43 billion, but outside groups put the cost at $65 billion or higher. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office said it could hit $67 billion. (A second phase would extend lines to Sacramento, Riverside and San Diego.)
It’s hard for me to grapple with the Dem’s attachment to this project. Maybe if Obama had started with this instead of health care, things would be different. But as it is, the national plan has all the markers of a sinking ship, and advocating for it when entitlement spending is going under the knife strikes me as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic of social liberalism.
Gulliver’s column at the Economist this week argues against high speed rail investment simply because the country’s existing inter-city train system is doing a pretty good job. It’s a small country that doesn’t take long to traverse as it is.
My husband’s uncle, regular reader, sent me this link from the National Review, written by Michael Barone. Barone’s piece has the marks of the National Review, with private-sector, private-sector, Rah-Rah tone to it, but he does make an excellent point: that is, the private sector, who has yet to show up in any meaningful way to the High Speed Rail party other than construction companies willing to bid for government contracts. Instead, there is quite a bit of intercity transport provided via private bus companies:
The buses have bathrooms, AC power outlets, and free Wi-Fi. They’re not as fast as the much more expensive Acela train, but they tend to run on schedule.
Bus travel used to be decidedly downscale, with a clientele that scared off middle-class travelers. That’s because, back in the days of heavily regulated transportation, bus lines followed the passenger railroad model, with stations in central cities, routes with multiple stops, fares propped up by monopolies, and operators with no economic incentive to provide comfortable or pleasant service.
Chinatown and Megabus operators ditched this model for one that works for travelers for whom money is scarce and time plentiful. Who needs a station? Inter-city buses can occupy curb space briefly just as city buses do. Who needs multiple stops? You can make money on people who want to go from one specific location to another.
Now, the service is still a four-hour ride, and this is where I suspect that people will argue with Barone. His last statement comes here:
So the private sector provides cheap inter-city transportation while government struggles to waste $53 billion. Please remind me which is the wave of the future.
That’s a bit too pat, but still. Advocates will argue that the four-hour bus ride is just too long and we need nicer facilities. But we do have nicer facilities–the Acela train. I’m sympathetic to Barone’s point here because I think the rail-only advocates do tend to be one-eyed about their pet technology, when everyday travelers really don’t care about what under the vehicles (rail or wheels). They only really care about comfort, cleanliness, speed, frequency, and geographic coverage (limited to their preferred locations). Previously, those were better delivered with trains, but there are improvements possible with bus technology as well. Advocates say “cha! that’s not true.” But if we can get improvements in those dimensions without spending billions, why shouldn’t we do so? That still wouldn’t necessarily be a substitute for HSR along the corridor: your $20 Megabus passenger probably isn’t going to opt into HSR if they aren’t opting into the Acela now. But service quality improvements are still probably worth getting anywhere we can get them.
So what do you think? BTW, if the immediate response is “Oh, we’ll save the environment” more with HSR, not many reading The National Review are going to buy that argument.