Commentary

Why PA Shouldn’t Build High-Speed Rail

Last week, Gov. Rendell submitted an application to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) for a share of the $8 billion of stimulus money Congress allocated for high-speed rail.

This raises a question for Pennsylvanians: Are you willing to pay $1,000 so that someone–probably not you–can ride high-speed trains less than 60 miles a year? That’s what the FRA’s high-speed rail plan is going to cost: at least $90 billion, or $1,000 for every federal income taxpayer in the country.

That’s only the beginning. Expect billions more for cost overruns. Taxpayers will also likely have to cover operating losses; Amtrak currently loses $28-$84 per passenger in most of its short-distance corridors.

Are you willing to pay $1,000 so that someone–probably not you–can ride high-speed trains less than 60 miles a year”

The FRA plan also has huge gaps, such as Dallas to Houston, Jacksonville to Orlando, and the entire Rocky Mountains. Once states start building high-speed rail, expect local politicians to demand these gaps be filled at your expense. And don’t be surprised when the government asks for billions more in 30 years to rebuild what will then be a worn-out system.

What would taxpayers get for all this money? Unless you live in California and maybe Florida, don’t expect superfast bullet trains. In most of the rest of the country, such as between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the FRA is merely proposing to boost the top speeds of Amtrak trains from 79 mph to 110.

A top speed of 110 mph means average speeds of only 60-70 mph, which is hardly revolutionary. Many American railroads were running trains that fast 70 years ago.

The pro-rail Center for Clean Air Policy predicts that, if the FRA’s system is completely built, it will carry Americans 20.6 billion passenger miles a year in 2025. That sounds like a lot, but, given predicted population growth, it is just 58 miles per person.

Pennsylvania’s portion of the plan will cost more than $1.2 billion, or nearly $100 for every Pennsylvania resident, plus more than $30 million annually in operating subsidies. Pennsylvania taxpayers will get little return for any state funds invested in this project: the average Pennsylvanian will take a round trip on these trains less than once every 20 years.

Most of your $1,000 will go to California, which wants you to help pay for a costly bullet train. Even this train will do little to relieve congestion or save energy; mainly it will just fatten the wallets of rail contractors.

Who will ride these trains? We can get an idea by comparing fares between New York and Washington, D.C. As of this writing, $99 will get you from Washington to New York in two hours and fifty minutes on Amtrak’s high-speed train, while $49 pays for a moderate-speed train ride that takes three hours and fifteen minutes.

Meanwhile, relatively unsubsidized and energy-efficient buses cost $20 for a four-hour-and-fifteen-minute trip with leather seats and free Wi-Fi. Airfares start at $119 for a one-hour flight.

Who would pay five times the price to save less than 90 minutes? Those wealthy enough to value their time that highly would pay the extra $20 to take the plane. The train’s only advantage is for people going from downtown to downtown.

Who works downtown? Bankers, lawyers, government officials, and other high-income people who hardly need subsidized transportation. Not only will you pay $1,000 for someone else to ride the train, that someone probably earns more than you.

Finally, high-speed rail is bad for the environment. The Department of Energy says that, in intercity travel, automobiles are as energy-efficient as Amtrak, and that boosting Amtrak trains to higher speeds will make them less energy-efficient and more polluting than driving.

An expensive rail system used mainly by the wealthy elite is not “change we can believe in.” Pennsylvania should use its share of rail stimulus funds for safety improvements, such as grade crossings, not for new trains that will obligate taxpayers to pay billions of dollars in additional subsidies.

Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and an adjunct scholar with the Commonwealth Foundation, an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.