Friday, March 11, 2011

High Speed Rail – Should It Be Profitable?

An all-out press has been made in Florida to rationalize the costs for the high-speed link between Tampa and Orlando. The cost of the study was $1.3 million in federal rail dollars (Is this a new form of American currency – federal rail dollars?). This is now the new version of state and federal investment (state’s plan-fed’s pay) and like most private development it’s always good to use OPM (Other People’s Money). But it’s someone’s and you only have to look out the window to see whose OPM it is.

Can high-speed rail be profitable? The greater question is should it be profitable? The interstate highway system, started in the mid to late 1950s and dramatically changed America. Without a doubt it’s the greatest transformer of economies and cities since the late 1800s and the growth of railroads throughout the country. Fortunes were made from both enterprises, one fundamentally private (with lots of federal bonds), the other almost exclusively public through the use of huge federal bonds paid for (70% +/-) by user fees that are primarily gasoline taxes.

The rational, and I do accept it, is that the highway system provided the base infrastructure that permitted the most significant growth and change to America, the suburbs. The cities could not accommodate or even contain the growth of the last fifty years. The interstate highway system facilitated and supported this expansion. We again became a country of small towns and villages. That growth is no longer a trend, it is woven into the fabric of America, as evidenced in the current census numbers being released. The cities are not growing; it’s in their surrounding communities and towns where land, homes, and business opportunities abound.

The ongoing justification for the high-speed rail system is to facilitate the growth of America into this next century. Jobs, as transitory as they are, seem to be the base rational to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to make it quicker to go from inner-city to inner-city. The other arguments are questionable: they will be profitable, they are an alternative to the car, they will spur growth in the cities, and they are “sustainable.”

We have a very good rail system throughout the United States; Warren Buffet thought so, and bought a railroad. I don’t hear the rail companies clamoring for a faster system of moving shipping containers filled with Chinese goods across the country (my guess is that they secretly hope for a separate rail system so the damn passenger trains will get off their rails). As an old Illinois Central executive said a half a century ago, “Freight makes money, people make trouble.”

High speed rail, a point-to-point system, will do little to serve the small towns and villages of America. The best they will do is annoy the residents as they whistle through at one hundred and fifty miles an hour. The interstate highway created jobs by being the great enabler in community planning. Every off-ramp became the local “train station” of the 19th century. Communities evolved and grew; the interstate system became the twentieth century’s version of civilization’s river landings and ocean ports.

If more jobs need to be created, build on and support the existing passenger rail system, freight not-withstanding. Push for electrification, revive the intercity trolleys of eighty years ago, expand and aid BART, MARTA, and other regional Metro systems, focus on regions not continental pipe-dreams.

And remember that there is not one high-speed rail car and train builder in the United States; they will come from France, Germany, South Korea, Japan and China. We have forgotten how to build bridges (the new SF Bay Bridge is from China), railroads, and even toys. And just because Europe and the world have high speed systems doesn’t mean we have to; they still have a few kings and political systems that are a lot different than ours, change anyone?

Stay tuned . . .

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