Federal taxpayers canâ€™t afford high-speed rail in California or anywhere else. A Cato essay on high-speed rail points out that the cost of Californiaâ€™s HSR could be $81 billion and a national system could cost $1 trillion. Samuelson is right: the Obama administrationâ€™s HSR dreams â€œrepresent shortsighted, thoughtless government at its worst.â€
Thus, the costs of a true high-speed rail system would be far higher than the costs of a medium-speed system on existing tracks, as envisioned by the Obama administration. To build a 12,800-mile system of high-speed trains would cost close to $1 trillion, based on the costs estimates of the California system. It is unlikely that the nation could afford such a vast expense, particularly since our state and federal governments are already in huge fiscal trouble.
I can only conclude that Cato scholars are wretched managers of their personal financial affairs. To put the above in perspective, it’s like saying that a household with $140,000 in annual income can’t afford to buy a $10,000 car.
America’s infrastructure is already under incredible strain. Road congestion is a significant problem in most of the country’s cities. Airports are stressed as well. Where intercity rail runs at speeds competitive with alternatives, trains are at capacity. And the country’s big transit systems are increasingly jammed. Meanwhile, America’s population will increase by over 100 million people over the next few decades.
We could continue using existing infrastructure while limiting congestion if we used congestion charges, but these would rise to exorbitant levels over time if no new transportation capacity were added. And so the long-term question isn’t whether to build new capacity. It’s what kind of capacity to build.
And once we start considering that choice, rail starts looking pretty good. New roads in large metropolitan areas are extremely expensive, even on the exurban fringe. Land is just worth a lot of money. And for the money, new roadways don’t get you all that much in additional capacity. If you’re going to pay to use the land, you may as well put down infrastructure that can move a lot of people at high speeds. The math in favor of HSR only gets more favorable as you consider things like the emissions costs, impacts on land-use decisions, transportation safety, and so on.
True HSR isn’t going to make financial sense in all situations. It won’t. There’s no need to run a high speed line from Pierre to Spokane via Billings. But it will make a great deal of sense in many situations, and to rule it out on bogus cost grounds or ideological priors is just foolish.