Friday, March 4, 2011

Obama's rail strategy

In 2009, the President announced that the stimulus package would include eight billion dollars for high speed rail construction. Since then, he has budgeted additional funding for rail and chosen specific corridors to spend the money on. This high-speed rail plan has been widely derided as a boondoggle, even by many rail advocates. They argue that what was really needed were targeted upgrades to corridors that already had high ridership. Furthermore, they felt it would be preferable to get these corridors upgraded to "normal speed rail," because the benefits of high speed rail would not be worth the expense.

Those rail advocates may be right about the best things to build. If Obama were absolute dictator, maybe that's what he should have done. But he's part of a political system, and each of these projects requires support from several partly independent actors in the system. In that light, the rail plan was based on a relatively sound strategy, and is starting to look better and better.

Remember that there are four kinds of mode choices that people make: single trips, habits, investments and subsidies. Habits are predominantly chosen on the basis of availability and value, but the other three are often made on the basis of glamour, and occasionally amenities.

Subsidies, in particular, are decisions about the future. At the current pace of passenger rail construction in the United States, many of the politicians making decisions about passenger rail will be old or dead before a rail system could be of practical value to most of their constituents. They're making decisions for generations to come, which puts a lot of the discussion in the realm of fantasy and glamour.

Roads have a definite glamour to them. Although there are plenty of train songs and movies, and some about buses, ships, airplanes, spaceships, airships, bicycles, walking and even dogsleds, most of the media fantasies in the past sixty years have focused on cars. The dubious connection between driving and freedom is hammered into us in almost every half hour of television, every magazine. The road builders and airlines have a hand in this too. Visions of the future often involve wider roads, faster cars, faster planes and even flying cars and jetpacks.

The road plans currently being promoted all involve expanding the road network. Even if it's only a modest expansion like the Kosciuszko Bridge, it's still a step on the way to Tomorrowland. In contrast, the pragmatic vision of many rail advocates is a step on the road to the rail network we had in 1960. A lot of transportation geeks would be happy to have that back, but to the general public it's not exactly an inspiring vision. We had that back in 1960 and people chose to drive instead. Now the road network is vastly bigger than it was in 1960; why would people choose rail?

Obama and LaHood needed a vision of the future that would compete with the car vision, while still being in reach. The only thing that can do that is high-speed rail, with at least one demonstration corridor.


Alon Levy said...

What I've heard from rail advocates is the exact opposite - i.e., complaints that Obama should've spent all the $8 billion on HSR, and not on low-speed lines in Ohio and Wisconsin. The people who like the Ohio Hub, like BruceMcF, seemed satisfied with the allocation.

capt subway said...

Focus is of the utmost importance here. And the NE Corridor is the obvious place to start. What better "demonstration corridor" is there? And the place to start is by removing the bottleneck of the two tracked Hudson River crossing by adding two more tubes between Secaucus and Penn. But it seems they can't even make up their minds on this one - an obvious no-brainer (IMHO). WTF, take the money rejected by FL and WI and get digging! Even some Republicans agree the NE Corridor is the place for HSR.
OK I know it's not that simple but....

nathan_h said...

> In that light, the rail plan was based on a relatively sound strategy, and is starting to look better and better.

Friend, what are you talking about? The State of Florida is right now trying to reject the $2.4 billion assigned to it. It can not be good politics when people are campaigning against an expensive gift you gave them.

The administration put a great deal of their political capital and *our* actual capital into a project that is particularly unlikely to succeed. It has current political and future ridership problems that simply do not exist for other potential upgrades. NEC upgrades already have hundreds of thousands of local supporters; Florida HSR has what, hundreds *or* thousands?

Again, your comment about Obama needing to be an "absolute dictator" to devote funding to productive corridors where it has broad, popular support instead of foisting it on a state that doesn't even want it leaves me at a complete loss. Is this one of those "let's all eat babies" arguments?

Even if Mickey Mouse's HSR beats the odds and is one day put into service, it is going to seem too expensive to Floridians. We will be subsidizing the hell out of this bauble, forever, to try to get people who already have cars to use it. And when energy gets expensive enough to curb middle class driving, as it will, that will just make open roads more attractive to the wealthy--i.e., the only ones able to pay for HSR tickets. What Floridians and most Americans really need, in this scenario, is inexpensive and functional rail. Every time we blow $2.4 billion on bad bets like this, they are less likely to get that.

It's not that I think HSR "can't work" in Florida, or anything daft like that. In a sane alternate universe that state and every other with similar characteristics would have good, fast train service. But in this universe, the Obama DOT bet our money on a cranky old horse with a trick hip. If you are going to convince me that this is a "sound strategy," you're going to have to offer a far more substantial argument than what's in this post.

Alon Levy said...

"And the place to start is by removing the bottleneck of the two tracked Hudson River crossing by adding two more tubes between Secaucus and Penn."

No, no, no. This is the place to end, in light of the high cost and the zero speed benefits over. Even the capacity question can be kicked a few years down the road with better signaling.