High Speed Rail is great if it’s done right

President Obama said in a speech a year ago that an American High Speed Rail network would “reduce traffic congestion, cut dependence on foreign oil and improve the environment” (video, 1).  Every one of these points is completely true of a High Speed Rail (HSR) network, if the planning is done correctly.  Smart planning involves correctly identifying corridors in the US that would benefit most from a HSR network and, once selecting a location, providing enough funding to the project to complete an efficient HSR network that can serve as a model for subsequent American HSR corridors.  The Obama administration has correctly identified the need for High Speed Rail, but has failed to allocate funds in a way that will build a competitive HSR network in the US.

As part of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the federal government has set aside $8 billion for improvements in rail service (1).  This $8 billion is being spread out among 31 states.  California is getting the most money, $2.25b, and Florida is getting the second most ($1.25b) (2).  This is problematic for a couple reasons.

First of all, the San Fransisco-to-Los Angeles corridor is a very good location for high speed rail.  It would connect major population centers, and the distance between the centers makes HSR a more attractive option for many travelers than both air travel and car travel.  However, $2.25b provides the California Rail Authority with little more than enough to get the ball rolling with the planning.  The plan to connect San Fransisco to Los Angeles and Anaheim is estimated by the California Rail Authority to cost $43 billion.  Had California been awarded the entire $8 billion, it would be a significant fraction of the total cost that could be used to make real progress, but as it stands now, no state is in a position to make convincing progress on a HSR network.

One might question whether even the entire $8b would be enough to make significant progress.  Maybe not.  Consider that in the next three years China is planning to spend $300b on HSR projects (5).  The difference between China’s spending and the US’ spending on HSR is even more staggering when viewed as a share of 2008 GDP: 7% for China and 0.06% for the US (4).

Politically, giving $8b of federal money to one state is problematic, because that’s everyone’s money.  This is one of the big challenges that many renewable energy and clean technology projects face: economies of scale would result from spending lots of money in one place, but political pressure forces funds to be spread out very thinly over a wide variety of recipients.

The second shortcoming of the funding allocation is that Florida is receiving the second most money.  The target project is a HSR between Tampa and Orlando.  After the President signed into law the ARRA, a national transportation and infrastructure initiative, America2050, published a study analyzing the best sites for a HSR network in the US.  Their six criteria for an ideal corridor were that it should:

  1. Connect heavily populated regions
  2. Connect significant economic centers (high GDP per capita and per region)
  3. Easily integrate into existing metropolitan public transit infrastructure
  4. Connect regions between 100 and 500 miles apart so that it could be competitive with air and road travel
  5. Reduce congestion on interstate highways between the regions
  6. Be located inside a “megaregion,” with other large population centers nearby so expansion is feasible (3)

Based on these criteria, America2050 ranked the top 50 city pairs for HSR based on which would add the most benefit.  The Tampa-to-Orlando corridor is not in the top 50.  Both Tampa and Orlando especially fail the third criterion; in both cities it is nearly impossible to get around without a car.  If one were to take a HSR from Tampa to Orlando (thus shaving off only 30 minutes of the 90 minute journey), the traveler would be faced with a couple options: get picked up by a friend, walk somewhere, or take the HSR back to Tampa.  Or take the rail to Disney World.  Also, I-45, the interstate highway connecting the two cities, has minimal congestion issues.

Even Republican representative John Mica, whose district would fall on the proposed line, has publicly questioned whether his state was the best choice to receive funding (2).  The federal mentality seems to be to get one quick HSR line built as a proof of concept, and then use it as an example for other projects.  However, the opposite is more probable, as HSR opponents will point out the fact that no one is using the Tampa-to-Orlando line and it was a waste of money.

The America2050 study finds that the HSR corridor that would add the most benefit would be New York-to-Washington D.C.  Of the top ten best pairs, six are in the Northeast Corridor, three are in the California corridor, and number ten is Dallas to Houston.  One cannot help but suspect a political motive for dumping federal funds into Florida, which could be a swing state in the 2012 presidential election.  President Obama probably doesn’t need extra votes in the Northeast Corridor, which got minimal HSR funding.


1.  http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/04/16/obama.rail/#cnnSTCText

2.  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/23/us/23train.html

3.  http://www.america2050.org/pdf/Where-HSR-Works-Best.pdf

4.  http://www.google.com/publicdata?ds=wb-wdi&met=ny_gdp_mktp_cd&idim=country:CHN&dl=en&hl=en&q=gdp+of+china#met=ny_gdp_mktp_cd&idim=country:CHN:USA

5.  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/08/business/global/08rail.html?pagewanted=1


1 Comment

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One response to “High Speed Rail is great if it’s done right

  1. jwsteubing

    I’ve always been frustrated by our nation’s policymakers’ love affair with air travel at the expense of a reasonable, affordable national transportation grid. Congress sets aside billions of dollars a year to subsidize the TSA (i), FAA, and bails out airlines with packages exceeding the total ARRA funding for HSR (iii). Obviously we consider aviation to be a public good and worthy of taxpayer subsidy, whereas a bus or train system is stigmatized as a waste of money.
    Air travel has become consistently more expensive, less pleasant and less reliable. Mexico, our neighbor to the south, provides a bus system that puts Greyhound to shame in reliability, quality of vehicle, price and travel time. A public dollar invested in rapid bus transit or trains goes much farther than a public dollar invested in aviation, and is able to provide an affordable, trans-national travel option for all citizens, not just the upper middle class and above.

    (i) http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=110_cong_reports&docid=f:sr396.110.pdf
    (ii) http://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/aba/budgets_brief/media/FY%202010%20President's%20Budget%20Submission.pdf
    (iii) http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/12/09/eveningnews/main532311.shtml

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