» Countering opposition to the intercity rail development project.
Members of the House and Senate expect to consider — and hopefully pass — a transportation reauthorization bill this year that will dedicate federal funding to the United States’ transport networks for the next several years. While spending on both highways and transit is virtually assured, one wildcard is high-speed rail, which has significant support from members of the Democratic Party and very little from the Republicans. While President Obama has made it one of his signature initiatives, promoting a plan to spend $53 billion on intercity rail lines over the next six years, GOP leadership has rejected funding offered to states like Florida and argued that the country should not be investing in such infrastructure.
The baseline explanation for the limited Republican support for such investments is relatively easy to pinpoint: Their electors live in areas that would benefit only indirectly from such projects. Their constituents, primarily living in sprawling suburbs, do not see the value of government spending on anything other than roads.
Yet as commentator Reihan Salam rightfully pointed out earlier this week, the viewpoint many conservatives hold on the matter is more nuanced than that. Specifically, “I think that many… can see the logic behind public investment in passenger rail in the Northeast, provided that there are strong accountability mechanisms in place,” Salam wrote.
I will return to Mr. Salam’s point, but it is worth first delving into the specific rationales many conservatives give for opposing the Obama Administration’s rail project, both to understand those positions but also to highlight reasons why those arguments are problematic. In order to be successful in the U.S., intercity railway programs must be able to attract bipartisan support, so finding ways to counter the growing anti-rail sentiment should be a priority.
From my view, there are two views, not necessarily in accord, held by conservatives to explain their opposition to rail:
- Intercity rail, at least as a government program, constitutes inappropriate involvement of the public sector in something that should be determined by the market. Moreover, rail requires subsidies for construction and, in some cases, operations, and subsidies are bad because they represent government’s intrusion into decisions that should be made by individuals.
- Intercity rail investments as proposed by the Administration, including billions of dollars distributed to states to complete incremental improvements, did not go far enough. In the act of spreading the money around too thinly, the government was in essence preventing the development of one true high-speed system. High-speed rail could work, just not in the places where funds have been allocated so far.
The first argument — which suggests that the government should simply get its hands out of the rail game — is founded on an understanding of the way transportation funding works that ignores private costs and completely sidelines externalities. It is true that investments in rail often look less promising than a highway on the taxpayer’s expense list: While the latter can often pay for its own construction through the collection of tolls or fuel taxes*, high-speed rail needs significant up-front public investments to pay for construction that are usually not paid off. Moreover, slower-speed railways, as we all know from Amtrak’s record, require operations subsidies, though high-speed lines do not.
Yet when total costs are put into play, rail does not look so poor especially compared to car drivers since the train riders are not paying for fuel, maintenance, and insurance if they are substituting their car travel with train use. Perhaps just as important, if rail replaces journeys that would have otherwise been taken on another mode, it is reducing carbon emissions, congestion, and deaths-by-accident; in the long term, rail can spur revitalization in center cities, attracting jobs and residents to downtown cores, rather than to sprawling locales served by cars alone.
Meanwhile, while it may sound appealing to reject public sector decision-making about travel, the fact is that the U.S. government has spent 60 years funding highway projects across the country; to suggest that now is the time to cut off government support for transport, after the culture is entirely automobile-dependent, would be short-sighted.
The second, more compelling argument, the one that suggests that good rail investments are possible — just that the wrong decisions have been made by this White House — is generally held by Mr. Salam. I have questioned some of the Administration’s choices in rail funding selection myself.
Atlantic columnist Megan McArdle wrote a screed on the issue this week, arguing against the Administration’s decision to concentrate spending on the Florida project and the first stage of the California project (to run through the Central Valley). Ms. McArdle claimed that “To make it work, we need to get away from demonstration projects, and start with the projects that make good economic sense.” The problem with this logic, of course, is that the government did not have enough money to build those projects that “make good economic sense,” because they would have cost more than the $10.5 billion that has been allocated for this purpose by the Congress so far.
Mr. Salam signaled a similar approach to this issue, arguing that if only the right route had been picked, Tea Party members might not have referred to such projects as “trains to nowhere.” At a hearing last week, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-FL) played the same rhetorical game, suggesting that the Administration had done the wrong thing with its funds.
Do Ms. McArdle, Mr. Salam, or Mr. Mica in fact want more money for rail? Would any of them be willing to set aside the $117 billion Amtrak needs to upgrade the Northeast Corridor?
I would be the first to admit that the Northeast Corridor is the best place for high-speed rail in the country and that it deserves funding — I, for one, would love to be able to get from my perch in Boston down to Washington in just three hours. But conservatives were fighting against the rail program before the Department of Transportation made its selections! Is it honest to suggest that conservatives would have been supportive of more — far more — funding for intercity rail if they knew that funding was going to the “right” lines?
But what are those “right” lines? Singled out by the aforementioned commentators was the California project, which as framed by Ms. McArdle is particularly “ridiculous” because “there aren’t any, like, passengers.” “Could it be that Tea Party members have been referring to trains to nowhere because the first leg of the unviable California HSR effort link two cities with a combined population of 25,000?,” Mr. Salam advanced.
The story is more complex. The first section of the California project will connect Fresno and Bakersfield, stopping near Hanford on the way. Together, the three metropolitan areas this line would serve constitute the primary residence for more than two million people. More importantly, while the funding is not yet fully committed, California is well on the way to being able to connect this core segment with extensions to San Francisco and Los Angeles — the Central Valley, after all, lies between them. Northeast Corridor or not, no one should deny the national importance of connecting those two metropolitan areas. The state rail authority’s announcement today that it has received 1,100 expressions of interest in being involved financially in the project from private groups like Alstom and Virgin should provide evidence that this is not in any way a hopeless cause.
Yet even if we were to take the stand that the California project were not good enough — if only the Northeast is appropriate for federal rail investment — there would be no way to articulate a national transportation strategy that ignored the rest of the states given the political realities of representation in the U.S. Congress. In that case, not only would you have a problem achieving bipartisan consensus, but you would isolate rail supporters to just one section of the country. Yet this is in effect the course suggested in the arguments made by those conservatives who claim to support rail.
The fact of the matter is that we must have a nationwide investment in intercity rail; it would be very difficult to produce support for federal government spending for just one region. The alternative is no investment at all.
* For the sake of this argument, let’s ignore the fact that user fees do not actually cover the full costs of roads.