CNN is running a significant and generally even-handed treatment of the Obama administration approach to high speed rail. You will need to sit down and take a deep breath because it does not get started on the best foot. Naturally, our always reliable libertarian friends (scroll down to item below) have grave reservations about whether high speed rail will ever cover its costs.
There is another serious error. According to Amtrak spokesman Clifford Cole, “the Acela unit is profitable. ” Yet a few paragraphs earlier the CNN report flatly states,
The Northeast corridor, linking Washington, D.C. to Boston, is the nation’s most highly developed high-speed rail service, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Most of it is controlled by Amtrak, a federally-funded railroad company that relies on government help, receiving more than $5 billion in federal appropriations and stimulus funds over the past three years, according to Amtrak spokesman Clifford Cole.
So, if the northeast corridor gets $5 billion in subsidies in the past three years, in what way is Acela profitable?
A Mr. Sam Staley of something called the Reason Foundation has added his most reasonable opinion, which coincidentally exactly coincides with the special interests which control the transportation debate.
Sam Staley said it’s possible for a well-designed high-speed rail to cover its operating costs, but even the best-run rail system won’t be able to cover the capital costs stemming from its development.
“I would really like to see high-speed rail work because I really like trains,” he said. “I just have trouble getting over the fundamentals. These things shouldn’t even move forward unless they can cover their operating costs.”
Indeed, that is a most “reasonable” concludion. So, let us consider another “reasonable” proposition: should highways cover their operating costs?
What are those operating costs? I suppose we must figure in the 40,000 fatalities each year of the billions in personal injuries and lost wages. Yes, it is an unfair argument but the human price of our transportation policy should not be entirely overlooked.
In Arkansas, a southern state which just appropriated the FIRST funding ever for any sort of rail project and in which the trucking association holds an absolute death grip on the general assembly, yet the state has enormous unmet road deficiencies.
- 25% of Arkansas’ bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
- 32% of Arkansas’ major roads are in poor or mediocre condition.
- 39% of Arkansas’ major urban highways are congested.
- Vehicle travel on Arkansas’ highways increased by 58% from 1990 to 2007.
- Arkansas has a $160 million backlog in highway maintenance needs.
Source: American Society of Civil Engineers report Sept. 2008.
There is more, so pay attention.
Last month, during the committee’s first meeting, state Highway Director Dan Flowers said the fuel tax has been a flat source of revenue and that the state is seeing a decline in that stream. Flowers also said Arkansas highways would need $200 million more annually just to maintain current conditions.
Source: Arkansas News Bureau report June 25, 2009.
In a poor southern state which is completely car dependent, gasoline tax receipts are flat and headed south. Automobiles will be more fuel efficient, and some will be electric. This demands a new source of funding and funding from sources other than those that have been labeled as “user fees.”
Truckers are explicit that fuel taxes must go only to highways. It is a self-serving argument and, not wishing to cause offense, Jane Fonda tried a similar line of reasoning about 40 years ago. Transportation is undergoing an fundamental change and it is apparent when we look at the funding sources that have generally been available.
Put another way, why don’t highways cover their costs?
(I am not an accountant, so I cannot say with authority whether maintenance is included in “capital” costs. I doubt it and Amtrak has much the same situation in the northeast corridor. Ridership is high, but it take a lot of dough to keep tracks up to 125 mph. standards.)
This discussion has, so far, completely excluded the needs for additional road capacity, which even in Arkansas is substantial. When Mr. Flowers addresses this topic, it is in the billions.
To borrow a phrase from CNN, it’s the elephant on the highway.
In Arkansas, we hardly know the meaning of traffic congestion, but it is at crisis stages in some areas and the only solution is to expand to 10 lanes or more, or start stacking highways on top of each other. Is this the noxious eyesore we really want for the future?
One of the things discussed at some length at the recent National Intermodal Steering Committee and Texas High Speed Rail Commission meeting in Little Rock is the anticipated population growth. I recommend you all get up to speed on this issue. Many regions which might not support true HSR by population volume today will in 20 years. That is why we must start now and, even to my own surprise, there is some urgency.
It is the Buckeye, Heritage and Reason that are falling on the emotional arguments, and largely based on the irrational and unfounded fear of a loss of personal freedom. That kind of assertion is simply beyond comprehension, but it might be worth saying that giving people choices is a fundamental bedrock of American government and free enterprise.
Better transportation, including HSR and “high performance” trains, enhance the highway and airport systems. “Quality of life,” referenced in the CNN report is hardly a squishy “liberal” attribute for white wine swilling elitists.
Many parts of Arkansas attempt to compete for new industries. Quality of life is important and our non-congested system (a huge generalization, even in rural Arkansas) is a plus. Little Rock’s lack of good airline connections is a negative as is our anemic transit system. Businesses consider quality of life right along with taxation and education.