Finance High-Speed Rail

Fighting Ourselves Over Funding for Intracity Versus Intercity Transportation

It’s a daunting task, but we’ve got to improve transportation both in and between cities.

When discussing increasing spending on high-speed rail, questions of how funds should be prioritized frequently arise. Is it appropriate to spend tens of billions of dollars on new intercity rail lines when our inner-city transit systems are so deprived? Shouldn’t we focus our funds on the projects that are most likely to benefit the most number of people?

In a recent interview for a Russian business magazine, University of Minnesota Professor David Levinson, who blogs at The Transportationist, was asked about the effectiveness of high-speed rail in combating transportation and ecological problems, focusing on the concern that fast trains solve neither problem particularly well:

“HSR serves intercity travel markets, most transportation problems in the developed world occur within cities, which HSR does not directly address. Resources spent on HSR cannot be spent on local transportation problems.”

“I am not saying people won’t build HSR, just that it is not the best way to spend scarce resources. Electric vehicles, especially hybrids are gaining in popularity, I would bet within 10 years, more than half of all new cars sold in the US will be hybrid electric or electric.”

Mr. Levinson’s points — focusing on travel demand and environmental consequences — are typical of those who argue against the (admittedly huge) financial commitment required to construct new high-speed lines. Most travel is local, and reducing travel time and increasing speeds along those in-town corridors are the primary concern of most transportation analysts. In other words, why spend money on high-speed rail when urban transit will serve more trips more cost-efficiently?

Second, while high-speed rail is more environmentally friendly than airplanes or cars, automobiles are quickly becoming more fuel efficient and will likely soon rely on the electric grid just like trains. The ecological benefits of trains will therefore diminish over time, raising questions about whether it makes sense to invest so much in their development in the pursuit of reducing carbon emissions.

But Mr. Levinson fails to address the fact that investment is needed in both intercity and intracity corridors. Claiming that we should not fund high-speed rail because urban transit is more important is equivalent to saying that federal subsidies to air travel and non-urban highways should simply end, because metropolitan areas need more investment and travel between cities is less important.

The U.S. certainly has “scarce resources” at the moment; the $9 trillion government deficit over the next ten years will likely force budget cuts and require a reevaluation of spending in all executive branches, including the Department of Transportation. But the question here is not whether to invest in urban or long-distance travel systems. The country continues to grow relatively quickly, and both in-city and intercity travel demand will have to be met. Thus, we simply cannot devote all funds currently designated for the latter type of travel to the former; while we certainly should commit more funds to urban transit, we also need to find new and better ways to move between cities, since more and more people will be doing exactly that.

What Mr. Levinson does not answer is how to address the question of long-distance travel. How do we get people from one city to another as quickly and conveniently as possible? How do we do so in the most environmentally-sensitive way? Here’s a chart that addresses these questions directly:

Corridor length Current Cars Future Cars Buses
Airplanes High-Speed Trains
0-200 mi Fast Yes Yes No No On longer corridors
Ecological No Yes Yes No Yes
Convenient Yes Yes To center- city locations No To center-city locations
200-600 mi Fast No No No Yes Yes
Ecological No Yes Yes No Yes
Convenient Yes Yes To center- city locations No To center-city locations
600 mi + Fast No No No Yes No
Ecological No Yes Yes Relatively Yes
Convenient Yes Yes To center- city locations No To center-city locations


Cars have the future potential to be ecologically sensitive and “fast” on short corridors (excluding their land use effects), and airplanes are fast and (relatively) environmentally friendly over very long distance corridors. High-speed rail, however, corners the 200-600 mile travel market, moving people quickly and efficiently between cities. Electrically-powered cars, running on energy generated at power plants running on renewable sources, may be a compelling solution to reducing the carbon-dioxide emissions of transportation systems. But they will always be simply too slow to be a reliable competitor to airplanes on corridors longer than 200 miles.

Airplanes, meanwhile, will continue to be powered by carbon-based fuels for the foreseeable future. As a result, for travel corridors of between 200 and 600 miles, high-speed rail represents an ideal solution, being both fast and environmentally sensitive. Neither new cars nor better air service offers the same advantages.

High-speed rail is convenient to people living or working in center-city locations, not true for air travel. Meanwhile, car travel, while “convenient,” since one can drive directly from one’s driveway, encourages sprawl in a way not true of high-speed rail if stations are positioned only in inner-city cores, as they should be.

Arguing that improving urban transit should be prioritized over high-speed rail is acceptable, but ignoring the needs of long-distance travel is not. The United States has a serious need to invest in both intercity and intracity travel, and for trips of between 200 and 600 miles between large cities, high-speed rail is usually the most appropriate investment. In the pursuit of better transit within a city, we cannot forget that we also need to get between cities.

UPDATE: A fantastic re-working by St. Louis Urban Workshop of the Robert Samuelson anti-rail op-ed in Newsweek.

33 replies on “Fighting Ourselves Over Funding for Intracity Versus Intercity Transportation”

I just had a mass transit versus electric car brushup with an anti-rail commenter on the Austin Contrarian. What I ended up explaining was that today’s car technology, even when used in all-electric mode, can’t possibly be more efficient than good mass transit due to friction issues. Tires on concrete have a high friction coefficient; steel on steel has a much lower coefficient. So on the one hand trains brake much more slowly than cars and can’t handle inclines so well, but on the other they consume less energy and can go at higher speeds. To put things in perspective: the average load factor on the New York City Subway is, I believe, 23 people per car, which translates to about 1600 kg of unladen weight per passenger. But its emissions are equivalent to 122 passenger-mpg, which no car can get at 1600 kg per passenger. The Volt is supposedly going to get 50 mpg in charge-sustaining mode.

Mind you, most of the negative effects coming from emissions are from air pollution, not CO2. Greg Mankiw estimates that a gas tax of $2.21/gal is necessary to balance the pollution externality, compared with only $0.70/gal coming from a carbon tax (or cap-and-trade, which is equivalent). On the other hand, cars create lots of other negative externalities: parking, obesity, congestion, traffic accidents.

Even if cars run on solar power It does nothing to stop sprawl and decrease
gidlock..How can 400million people all have a car and it does no damage ?
HSR will work fine in the corridors selected and make travel far easier than todays drive to the airport/fly/rent-car/then drive all the way into town only option

Not that I am in agreement with Levinson’s argument, but isn’t some investment and improvement of inner-city transit ultimately necessary for the success of an HSR system? An HSR system will eliminate some long-haul trips, but without effective transit at the termini it would increase congestion in city centers and undermine the convenience of a center city destination. Or the very lack of options at a terminus may dissuade people from opting for the HSR to begin with? The European model succeeds in large part because the HSR lines tap into the transit networks the connected cities and makes cars unnecessary altogether.

You know what, intercity buses are pretty darn cheap and efficient, at least here in the northeast. And, as far as I know, they mostly operate in the private sector, meaning that it’s quite easy for the market to supply cheap and efficient intercity transit. Of course a train is a lot more confortable and potentially faster than a bus, but you have to weigh the cost.

Great post. Long time reader, first time commenter. I agree that the ‘pie needs to get bigger’. Your post is almost identical in its thrust to an op-ed I wrote for the Post-Dispatch when I lived in St. Louis last year, before HSR was a serious part of the national conversation. Below is the original (unedited) version:

Saturday, Mar. 29 2008


After reading the Editorial entitled ‘Off track’ in today’s (3/27/08) Post-Dispatch, I feel compelled to comment.

I wholeheartedly agree with your assertion that Metro needs funding support from the State. I believe, at present, they receive approximately $1 million per year (not including special I-64 related funds); a paltry sum given the unmet needs and unlocked potential of increased transit funding and service. The state of Illinois, although belatedly, recently pledged to continue its funding for the RTA – the Regional Transit Authority of the Chicagoland region – which funds heavy rail and intracity bus service (CTA) suburban bus systems (PACE), and regional commuter rail (Metra). Despite glaring differences between Chicago and St. Louis, I think you’d agree that increased funding of public infrastructure pays off externality dividends no private investment could ever. This issue of public investment is the root of the second part of my comment and of my disagreement with your article.

One sentence of your editorial sums up my contention, especially when reviewed in the context on my previous sentence: “Outside of the crowded eastern corridor, passenger trains no longer make economic sense.” This is an absolute fallacy and misnomer, and I am offended that you misguide the public with such a statement. Passenger rail, although not terribly popular in this part of the world, is, much like high speed mass transit, the past and the future of intercity travel. While disinvested and largely disregarded for several decades, passenger rail (and high speed intracity mass transit) is the preferred form of travel in many circumstances. For trips of less than, say, 400 miles, rail service is a relatively inexpensive, quick, convenient, environmentally friendly, and enjoyable form of transportation. This is a primary reason why the federal government has designated Chicago-St. Louis a high speed rail corridor.

An investment in such infrastructure pays off handsomely. In Illinois, again for example, by doubling their investment in Amtrak service – from a modest $12 million per year to a still relatively modest $24 million per year – that state has managed to double its passenger, intercity rail ridership. As example of the high correlation between investment in passenger rail service and ridership, take the Chicago-St. Louis route, which runs entirely through Illinois (except of course when it enters St. Louis at the Mississippi River). As part of Illinois’ investment in passenger rail, capital improvements are underway to increase speed capabilities of passenger trains on this route to 150mph. For the 300 mile trip to Chicago, that translates to a two – two and a half hour journey (including intermediate stops) between the two cities. As compared to a 4+ hour car trip or a two and a half hour or more plane trip (including waiting time), which costs more, is less convenient, requires you begin and end your journey nowhere near the city center, is less environmentally friendly, and is less pleasant, passenger rail is the preferred mode of transportation – as should be the case between St. Louis and Kansas City.

Passenger rail has its place just as heavy / light rail mass transit and commuter rail – with larger spacing between stations yet farther traveling trains – have their places. The issue is not the amount of the ‘pie’ Missouri should divvy up to passenger rail vis-a-vis intracity mass transit. We must improve funding for both – from a larger ‘pie’ of funds. Low tax states provide low levels of service. Without providing adequate service through increased funding for both intercity passenger rail and intracity mass transit, the threshold of investment by which the public at large may truly understand such transportation’s potential will never be met. In which case we can expect incremental investment in atrophying forms of transportation that, despite trends to the contrary in other parts of this country, continue to subsist on life support in Missouri.

Another thing to consider would be cost for riders. Such as the popularity of the Chinatown bus on the east coast because it’s so cheap compared to other options.

I enjoy this post, and I think you make some good points, although I believe you oversimplify things a bit. Fast and convenient car travel assumes a significant reduction in traffic. If the past 50 years are any prediction, this does not seem likely, unless you travel exclusively at night, which I would argue is decidedly not convenient.

To further complicate things, why are cars considered faster than buses for the 0-200 mi option? Do cars not sit in the same traffic that buses sit in, or are you considered the old greyhound model where buses stop in every dinky little town? All over the country, buses are now operating with direct service between large cities, making intercity bus travel almost exactly as fast as car travel, once you get on the bus. The time to get to the station is taken into account with the convenience factor.

Finally, I would also argue that in the NE, buses have about the same convenience as rail, in terms of where they drop you off. In NYC, Boston, Providence, DC, and Philly, the bus and train stations are pretty much in the center of the city. I believe this is true for most other large cities as well.

Your chart gives credence to fictional cars. Where are these inexpensive and reliable electric cars we keep thinking will roll off assembly lines and replace our base of internal combustion cars? We can’t all buy Teslas and if we all had Teslas can the lithium battery producer keep up? Can we add the power generation required to the grid?

The real answer is that the cheap, ecologically friendly car is self delusional fiction. The cost of private transportation will rise because the world’s resources are constrained by reality. The future will be a mix of less private vehicles and more public transit. Those cites and regions that ignore the trend will loose their economic vitality as a result of their delusional stubbornness.

Continuing on the intercity buses in the Northeast sitch… If they are frequent enough (twice/hour let’s say) and nearly as fast as cars (because they travel on the same highways as cars and make few intermediate stops), should not the “Fast” option on the 0-200 mi chart be “Yes” and not “No”? I’m thinking specifically of BosNeWash routes (Boltbus, Megabus, chinatown buses, plus Greyhound), which are mostly point-to-point, and more than frequent enough if you consider them all together.

A few other suggestions:

1) You should probably add a “reliable” row for each trip type, indicating the likelihood that the mode of transportation will be able to complete the journey as scheduled. HSR, especially in a dedicated ROW, is probably more reliable than any road-bound vehicle, and less prone to the weather- and maintenance-related delays that plague air travel.

2) “Convenient” should be broken up into two separate categories: pre/post journey, and in-journey convenience. Cars generally win out on pre/post journey conveniences–as you note they can be driven from point to point; there’s no need to travel to/from a central terminal at either end of the journey; and no need to bother with things like security. OTOH, cars suffer from the fact that someone has to drive them–if I’m taking the train or flying to LA I can relax and get work done on the journey; if I’m driving I cannot.

3) Since you added busses– you might as well add low-speed rail (i.e. current Amtrak levels of service in most corridors) as well.

How are buses any less convenient than trains? Both drop off in city centres, often at the same terminals.

It’s also not clear what “Fast” means on the chart above. High speed trains aren’t a very good investment on corridors of less than 200 miles for a variety of reasons, but there’s no way they will actually take longer to travel between their endpoints than a car (once the convenience of termini is accounted for).

“Convenience” is a pretty unhelpful word in this context anyway, as notes.

I agree that buses are just as convenient to inner-city locations. I have a hard time, however, qualifying them as “fast” for short routes even if they’re non-stop. Unlike cars, you have to get to the station; unlike trains, their travel speed isn’t any faster than that of cars.

Doesn’t anyone find it the least bit ironic that, when we were in boom times, we didn’t want to spend money on mass transit projects, as we were all able to get in our SUV’s and drive along state of the art multibillion dollar freeways to our giant homes way out on the suburban fringe—-a lifestyle that led to our current geopolitical and economic woes—and yet now that we are in a bust, we still don’t seem to want to spend money on mass transit projects?

WHEN is it a good time?

And WHO is behind this stonewalling?

I have a few ideas. Oil, auto and construction industry fat cats anyone?

There seems to be a signficant percentage of the population that believes, for whatever reason, that taxpayer-funded rail is somehow the moral equivalent of gulags and pogroms.

And, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that oil industry folk have a lot to do with transit opposition. The construction industry–not so much; they get hired either way. :)

Resources really are scarce, and opportunity costs are real. If you really wish to argue that we should be spending more money on both intra- and intercity transportation, you must also identify where in the federal budget we should reduce spending. What are we willing to trade off?

I’d be happy if the Feds stopped paying for road construction, fighter planes designed to defeat the Soviet Union, farm subsidies, auto bailouts, and invasions of defenseless third-world countries.

Cut the defense budget in half ($300 billion), undo both of the Bush tax cuts, get the hell out of Iraq, and suddenly you will find A LOT of money available for infrastructure.

Intercity buses are no different in operation than a private company running a train on a high speed line. Both are privately run, but use publicly owned and maintained infrastructure.

And the train is much faster and can hold WAY more people. HSR> intercity bus

Lauren, if I had $975 to spare for conference registration fees, I’d probably have better use for spare cash, such as lobby the local politicians near New York to give a damn about the NEC.

I disagree with your assessment of the “convenience” of cars.
*You have to drive them*. This is annoying compared to having a professional driver. The annoyance gets worse the longer the trip is.

Perhaps you need a fourth column: comfort. Cars are pretty comfortable at 50 miles, unpleasant at 200 miles, and very unpleasant at 600 miles. (For all except car enthusiasts, that is.)

And as someone else noted, cars are only “fast” for short trips if there’s no congestion. In rush hour, cars are intensely slow for short trips and can often be beat by walking….

So due to comfort and speed, for some 0-200 mile trips, trains win out over all cars. Not for all such trips, but definitely for some of them.

@Sean “And the train is much faster and can hold WAY more people. HSR> intercity bus”

However when you compare the price of a bus ticket with that on the new high speed rail, I guarantee the bus will be much cheaper. It really depends if people will be willing to pay more for comfort and time saved by taking the HSR. In the current economy, most would opt for the bus.

Another call for “balance” without defining the current situation.
Intraurban travel is probably at least 100 times greater than interurban travel, in volume. So if funds are to be allocated between them, what would “balance” look like? And, what do you do about the first and last mile problem, since only a few people want a destination in the historic downtown and often want to leave from
“home”. Studies of air travellers have shown, over and over, again that only a small fraction of such travellers have an origin or destination in a historic downtown. That’s one reason that cities that have a rail connection between downtown and the airport tend t o have very little patronage, other than a few airport workers. If you must have a railroad, choose a modern one that can service multiple origins and destinations. CyberTran is an example:

In terms of the number of passengers, intraurban travel has much greater volume than interurban travel. However, this is not necessarily true in terms of passenger-km or revenue. For JR East, whose commuter network is the world’s largest, the Shinkansen accounts for 2% of the total number of passengers, 15% of the total number of passenger-km, and 27% of the revenues. For JR West, the numbers are 3.5%, 29%, and 44%.

I wonder if Alon has noticed the difference between the geography and size and urban densities in Japan, as compared to the US?
The worst congestion and negative impacts of autos are, by far, within cities and metropolitan regions. They are in great need of
solutions that can begin to reduce their impacts (not more rail transit). More and more autos, however green, are not the answer either. Seems there is a need for innovation as described so well in the publication entitled Tomorrow’s Transportation. Google it to see what it recommends.

Jerzy, I’m not sure why you’re using the fact that cities have congestion as a way of arguing against me. I’m not saying that intraurban travel should be car-based; I’m saying that based on passenger volume metrics, investing a large fraction of transit spending in HSR is good policy. (Even the problem of last mile can be mitigated – many US cities already have commuter rail that’s good at getting people from where they live to the downtown train station, if not so good at getting them to their jobs.)

Only a small portion of travel between cities is “downtown to downtown”. If one spends huge amounts of money to blast their way into a metro area to reach the downtown (probably partially underground, at least)what do the passengers do to get to their desired destination. If the HSR advocates would agree that the HSR stations (very few of them to get decent average speeds) be built not in downtowns but somewhere else where there is lots of space to run a route, the cost of doing so would be substantially less. Then, what to do in getting from the outlying station to the desired destination? For some, it would be nearby, for other it would involve a longer trip.
Perhaps no longer that the passenger who gets off at a downtown station and needs to reach a suburban or exurban location. Downtown to downtown passengers are likely to be business persons who should use Telepresence and get their recreation where they live. As a society, we don’t need to subsidize them which letting the masses suffer with the terrible mobility that they experience daily with little or no choice in the matter

Downtown besides having lots of destinations, is also the place where the local mass transit goes. So if you want to go to the neighborhood ten blocks outside of downtown there will be a bus. Or if there is no bus the cab ride from the downtown train station is much shorter and cheaper than the cab ride from the airport.
Passengers destined for the suburbs can get off the train at the suburban station.

“Downtown to downtown passengers are likely to be business persons who should use Telepresence”

good luck trying to make a sales call via video conference. Video conference is also poorly suited for:
1) large transactions (anything from buying a car to buying a company)
2) Feedback driven design
3) Innovation

An entry level telepresence setup goes for about $200k so reliance upon it also ends up seriously handicapping small business and entrepreneurship.

Leave a Reply