Sunday, August 8, 2010

Is America Ready For High-Speed Rail?

That's the question posed by this piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and while it is an important one for the future of American transportation, even if it's answered in the affirmative the debate should not end. The vital follow-up questions - where it would be worthwhile, how we'd go about building and paying for it, and so on - are just as important.

Living in Japan and Korea and traveling quite a bit in Europe, I've had lots of experience with high-speed rail, and it's a fantastic way to travel mid-range distances - faster and less stressful than driving, and cheaper and less hassle than flying. In Sendai, where I live, I can simply turn up at the train station, buy a ticket, and be in downtown Tokyo, more than 200 miles away, two hours later, no questions asked. There are no traffic jams, tolls, demands for focus and attention, or worries about accidents or breakdowns as with driving, and no security or baggage lines, last-minute delays and cancelations, or need to plan weeks in advance if you don't want to have to pay top dollar for a ticket as with flying. I can spend the majority of the trip sleeping, doing crossword puzzles, or stretching out in what compared to a typical coach seat or car interior is grand comfort. It's an incredibly enjoyable way to travel, and I don't for a second buy the argument that some rail opponents in the U.S. make that Americans will never warm up to trains. The reason Americans don't use our existing rail system is not because they don't like trains. It's because our existing rail system, for lack of a better word, sucks. I have ridden on trains in third world countries that were better than Amtrak. If we had an efficient, economical, and well-run high-speed rail system in the U.S., people would use it.

But that's not to say that opponents of President Obama's proposal for building high-speed lines along certain highly trafficked corridors don't have some valid points. There is no question that building the infrastructure required is expensive and time-consuming, so any system we do build needs to be well-planned. Only certain areas of the U.S. - namely, the northeast corridor between Washington and Boston, the California coast between San Diego and San Francisco, and perhaps the Great Lakes band between Minneapolis and Pittsburgh - have the kind of population density and transport demands to make high-speed rail worthwhile. Only certain routes within those corridors make economic and engineering sense. President Obama's on-paper proposal for a high-speed rail system fully acknowledges these realities, but the problem is that no proposal that's a good idea on paper ever looks nearly so appealing once it's ready to be implemented in reality after making its way through the legislative sausage grinder. Japan offers a good object lesson on this. Like the U.S., the country has a political system in which politicians from rural constituencies wield a disproportionate amount of power. As in the U.S., getting things like large-scale transportation projects done entails placating a lot of interested parties on both national and local levels. Japanese public works projects, like their American counterparts, almost inevitably involve no-bid contracts, sweetheart deals, kickbacks, and other funny business between government officials and their connected friends in the private sector. And like Congresspeople, Japanese legislators love them some pork. When it comes to opportunities to serve up pork, high-speed rail, as an expensive, large scale project that involves long-term construction projects in multiple jurisdictions, is the public works equivalent of a weeklong thousand-guest Polynesian nuptial pig roast.

The Japanese shinkansen system, wonder of engineering and social planning though it may be, is proof positive of this. Look at a map of the system, and you'll note that the main lines - the Tohoku, Tokaido, and Sanyo lines - run through the heart of the so-called "Pacific Belt", the portion of the main island of Honshu that faces the Pacific Ocean and contains nearly all of the country's major cities and most of its population, and accounts for the vast majority of its wealth, educational and cultural capital, and economic productivity. That makes sense - you'd expect such a densely populated and productive region to require an extensive, high-capacity transportation network, and it does. The bullet trains that run between, say, Tokyo and Osaka, are nearly always packed. But you'll also a number of spur lines that run off into the hinterlands, terminating in small, economically unremarkable cities on the coast of the Sea of Japan - the region many urban Japanese derisively refer to as "the backside of Japan". What explains the existence of these spur lines, which appear to serve no real consumer demand and along which trains are often half-empty at best? Pork, of course. By building these lines, politicians from Japan's economically depressed rural regions bought jobs for their constituents, and hence continued voter support for themselves, on the dime of taxpayers in places like Tokyo. The Joetsu Shinkansen Line between Tokyo and the city of Niigata is perhaps the most infamous example. Initiated in 1971 by Niigata-born Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and finished in 1982, the line weaves 300 km from Tokyo through the mountainous and sparsely populated region of central Honshu to Niigata, a city of only 800,000 people and marginal economic importance on the coast of the Sea of Japan. The line cost $6.3 billion when it was constructed (something close to $25 billion in today's dollars), and has never come close to being profitable. When it was announced, the vague goal of "promoting regional development" was the ostensible justification, but the region the line serves has continued to lose population and economic clout in the decades since its completion. At best, its made the journey south to the bright lights of Tokyo much faster for the area's best and brightest.

It's the possibility of this kind of boondoggle that makes me extremely wary of high-speed rail in the U.S. I have a vision, in which no sooner is a high-speed line between Washington and Boston announced than politicians from Harrisburg, Atlantic City, Syracuse, Springfield, and every other marginal, small or mid-sized city within 200 miles of the proposed route begin clamoring for a spur line connecting their district to the overall network in exchange for their votes. Even Japan at the height of its so-called "economic miracle" couldn't afford such profligacy, and the U.S., with a massive entitlement crisis just over the horizon, certainly can't now.

As such, I'm only willing to support high-speed rail projects on a limited basis for now. It is an idea we need to consider - our current transportation infrastructure is overstressed and crumbling, and would be wasteful even if it weren't. In certain areas of the country building better trains may well be a better way to deal with that problem than building more highways. But we should start small - first build a line connecting, say, New York and Washington via Philadelphia - before we worry about more grandiose plans for a comprehensive network. We have limited resources, and we cannot afford to fritter them away to waste and abuse.

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