Economic geography tells us that market potential is important. If you want to be a rich place, it helps to be close to other rich places. This is one of the problems with the Rust Belt. Individually, Rust Belt cities are weaker than cities on the east coast — they have smaller economies and less human capital. This is complicated by the fact that they’re fairly isolated. The rich cities of the northeast corridor are squeezed together, while Rust Belt cities are far apart — from each other and from the rich cities of the east coast. This means that they have less to work with, and they’re less able to leverage that strength in a regional economy. For this reason, I’ve argued that it’s important to invest in individual cities in the Rust Belt, but it’s also important to improve connections between the cities. To effectively bring them closer together.
Why do I mention this? Well, I just saw this story about how Big Three executives may carpool to their next big meeting in Washington, since their private jet habit seems to have gone over poorly. Carpooling will certainly be greener and less extravagant than flying, but it will also take them a loooong time — nine hours if they don’t hit much traffic. The trip, after all, is just over 500 miles.
You know what else is just over 500 miles? The trip from Sacramento to San Diego, which will, in the not too distant future, be spanned by a high-speed rail line. High-speed rail could cut travel time between Detroit and Washington from nine hours to three — just a smidge longer than the train ride from Washington to New York, from downtown to downtown. And you’d never have to take your shoes off, unless you wanted to. High-speed rail would also cut a five-hour drive from Detroit to Chicago to just over an hour. Detroit to Cleveland? Just under and hour. Detroit to Pittsburgh? About an hour and a half.
High-speed rail would, in other words, turn Rust Belt distances into northeast corridor distances, while also shifting the Rust Belt closer to the northeast corridor. It would increase the return to doing business in every city in the region. It would be the Erie Canal and the original railroads on steroids.
And here’s the thing — California is estimating that its 800-mile high-speed rail network will cost it about $45 billion over twenty or so years. The actual cost will probably be higher than that, and a Midwest network would be larger and therefore more expensive, but the total cost is in the same ballpark as the $50 billion in aid automakers are begging for (which wouldn’t even be spread out over a period of years).
Given all this, there are a couple of questions worth asking. One, what’s the best way to secure the long-term economic future of the Midwest? And two, is a bail-out for automakers likely to make the realization of a Midwest high-speed rail network more or less likely?