Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Streetsblog’s Ryan Avent addresses Glaesar’s HSR criticisms in NYTimes blog

This is from Wednesday, but it’s so good that it merits playing catchup on. Some of you have perhaps been following Edward L. Glaesar’s economic analysis of high-speed rail prospects in the New York Times economics blog over the past few weeks. The last post in the series (although he says he might revisit the topic later) appeared on Tuesday and purports to address misconceptions that high-speed rail would have a signficant effect on land-use patterns. Now, of course, we here at TFA believe in challenging ones own viewpoints, and Glaesar provides some very readable points against HSR investment. But thankfully, Ryan Avent from Streetsblog has gone to the trouble of going a little more in-depth and refuting Glaesar’s dodgy economic logic. The post speaks for itself, but I quote its conclusion as a nice summation:

If we instead build new highway and airport capacity, then that will influence future development patterns and mode share. I challenge Glaeser to demonstrate that that future is greener and better off economically than one in which rail is built.

This is the principle shortcoming of Glaeser’s analysis — that it fails to take into consideration the alternatives.

I believe that increasing metropolitan congestion, rising energy costs, changing demographics, and new transit investments will generate a shift in housing and transportation preferences in coming decades. I think it’s wise to accommodate this shift by building high-speed rail.

Glaeser seems to believe that in coming decades congestion costs will cease rising; otherwise he’d build future increases into his model. He seems to think that the addition of over 100 million new Americans need not lead to any new infrastructure investment; otherwise he’d compare the economic benefits and life-cycle emissions of rail investments to alternative investment plans.

I think those beliefs are daft and indefensible. And four posts into his high-speed rail series, Glaeser hasn’t given any of us reason to think that his analysis is worth taking seriously.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Blogs and Transportation Resources, United States High Speed Rail

23 Responses

  1. Allan says:

    I post this in response to Randy Avent:

    Glaeser clearly states where the 1.5 million passengers came from and it wasn’t nearly as complicated as you wrote here … “I estimated that if the rail link had the same ridership as all airlines now connecting the two cities (1.5 million), then annual costs would exceed the direct benefits to riders by $546 million.”

    Randy – “What about the potential for high-speed rail to revitalize struggling regions? Glaeser notes that there are good historical examples of infrastructure investment boosting regional economic fortunes, but, he says, these may not apply to the case of high-speed rail. Why not?”

    This is pretty simple. In the 1850s, the only competition that rail had was riverboats and stage coaches. Rail was clearly superior to these modes in most cases. Nowadays there are paved roads, interstates, cars, air travel … Even if HSR doubled or even tripled the number of people in the US using rail, it would still be insignificant in comparison to other modes of travel.

    Randy – “… had the United States developed the Eisenhower high-speed rail network rather than the Eisenhower interstate highway system, our urban geography would be significantly different today.”

    Wow, this statement shows a complete lack of knowledge of history. First of all, there were already trains running at 130 mph back in the heyday of passenger rail but that didn’t prevent people from switching to air travel and personal cars.

    Second, a national highway system already existed prior to the interstate system, so it wasn’t like we weren’t already connected.

    Third, the interstate system was conceived and justified as a way for mass evacuation of cities during a time when there was a real possibility of a nuclear war being waged. Rail could not then nor now handle that amount of people.

    Fourth, the interstate system was completely funded by gas taxes. One of the biggest myths that I continuely see is that highways and interstates are subsidized. What the pro-rail folks often do, incorrectly, is lump the local roads with the highways and cry, “See! Roads are subsidized too!”

    Not only that, but money from the gas tax is siphoned off to subsidize transit. So one of the first reactions will be, “If the roads need a subsidy then let’s start by returning the money given to transit to the road fund.”

    Now, as for whether the gas tax covers the highways, I checked one of the more liberal states in the Union … Massachusetts. Here is a quote from their website about the MA Highway Fund: The Fund pays all transportation-related expenses, including debt service on bonds issued for transportation purposes. The fund finances highway maintenance and safety services and the state’s share of federally sponsored highway projects as required.

    Hmmm, the Fund pays ALL transportation-related expenses …

    I know that TN has raided the Road Fund in the past to balance the state’s general budget. Earlier this year (’09), there were committee meetings to discuss how to spend the money in the Fund … nothing about a Fund shortage.

    Randy – “I believe that increasing metropolitan congestion, rising energy costs, changing demographics, and new transit investments will generate a shift in housing and transportation preferences in coming decades. I think it’s wise to accommodate this shift by building high-speed rail.”

    Technology is rapidly developing, some of it is already available, for intelligent vehicles and intelligent highways that could make a significant impact on congestion. Until then, simple things like coordinating traffic signals can make life a lot easier.

    I suspect by the time that any HSR line is built that hybrids and electric vehicles will dominate the auto scene and thus eliminating the perceived benefit of rail on energy usage.

    Finally, most people like having a house with a yard and not living in “high density” projects like rats. Oddly enough, it was the streetcar that began kicked off suburbia. Trying to shoehorn people back into the city and “high density” will fail miserably.

    HSR is an expensive boondoggle. If you want to go fast then build a maglev. Otherwise, you can get more bang for the buck by HPR (High Performance Rail … 90-100 mph) by upgrading current tracks. Let’s focus on building a national rail network rather than expensive HSR.

  2. BruceMcF says:

    I made this point in response to Allen’s comment copy and pasted here (sorry that it is a restatement of my reply rather than a copy and paste).

    Glaeser is critiquing an existing HSR policy, and yet engages in a deceptive analysis that eliminates the main feature of the policy that already addresses his critique.

    That is, if the Houston/Dallas corridor only has a potential ridership of 1.5m, then the benefits versus costs of an Express HSR corridor are indeed much weaker than the Express HSR corridors likely to be funded.

    Glaeser uses the trans-MO corridor and the OK corridor to justify his choice of Dallas/Houston … but the actual corridors that he is referring to are not Express HSR corridors, but are in one case an Emerging HSR corridor, and in the other case is an upgraded conventional rail corridor as an extension of an Emerging HSR corridor.

    Using his own source of his capital cost estimates, a central cost estimate for Emerging HSR is $8m, ONE FIFTH his estimate of $40m/mile for an Express HSR corridor.

    In assuming an Express HSR corridor will be funded for a potential ridership of 1.5m, he is either substantially underestimating potential ridership, or substantially overestimating capital costs.

    That is why his analysis is fundamentally dishonest in its premises as a critique of the current HSR policy.

    Indeed, even if an Express HSR corridor is pursued, the extant proposal is for the T-bone, which pools capital costs of the Dallas/San Antonio and Dallas/Houston by relying on a common corridor through Waco and Temple, and of course with those intervening points less than an hour away from Dallas, Houston, or Austin on the T-bone alignment, while still offering the inter-metro transport time that will dominate air travel, his capital cost estimates are high for Houston’s share of the T-bone and ridership estimates low.

    This is not to detract from Ryan Avent’s point in the slightest. It may be that even a 1.5m ridership corridor can be justified when it is adding transport capacity to travel corridors as heavily congested as Houston/Dallas, because of the expense of adding to air and road infrastructure capacities that face increasing cost per passenger mile infrastructure, and the spin-off benefits of offering an alternative to the oil-dependent air and road transport.

    And it is also certainly is the case as well that basing the ridership estimate on 100% mode share of air, 0% mode share of road, 0% induced demand is biased to be an underestimate for an under 1 1/2 hour Express HSR route.

    However, even if Glaeser cost-benefit analysis of the Express HSR was flawless, it is simply dishonest to adopt the pretense that the current HSR policy is Express HSR or nothing.

  3. Woody says:

    Allan —

    Your ignorance of the pleasures of dense living is expressed in your phrase “most people like having a house with a yard and not living in “high density” projects like rats”.

    Actually, most people are denied the choice of how to live. Very few places have zoned any area at all for high-rise apartments. Most people are condemned to life dealing with crabgrass.

    From my own apartment in a middle-income building in Manhattan, I can walk across the street to a grocery store, a pizza parlor, a Chinese restaurant (which delivers), a health food store, two delis, a fastfood outlet, a drug store, and a bank with ATMs. Not to mention the bus stop for the crosstown route and another for the #7 and #9 heading downtown, and a subway a couple of blocks away.

    A friend described the joys of urban apartment living: When the roof leaks, “they” fix it. If the plumbing gets stopped up, “they” fix it. We don’t worry about burglars, “they” provide doormen. We don’t have to mow or rake or hire anyone to do yardwork for us, “they” are on staff.

    Living like a rat, indeed. Because the rest of your assertions may be as arrogantly ignorant as that one, I don’t believe anything you said.

  4. MadPark says:

    Thank you Woody – “nuf said” about Allan’s poorly reasoned comments.

  5. Allan says:

    Woody, Since 2003, when gas prices began their climb, suburban population growth has continued to outstrip that of the central cities. About 90% of all metropolitan growth has occured in suburban communities, according to the 2000 to 2006 census data.

    Trying to put this growth in suburbia off to zoning is disingenious. You just have to accept that you’re the exception and not the rule.

    If the demand for apartments and high rise living is there, the developers will get the zoning laws changed. But since, outside of New York, most high rise building and apartments are constantly losing people who choose to move into a house with a yard, then the developers build what the markets demands. If people didn’t want to live in them, they would sit empty.

  6. Woody says:

    Allan —

    My objection is not to your statistics, but to your disgusting choice of words. Your reference to those of us ‘living like rats” is beyond insulting. It is borderline racist. Living in the South you surely know all the code words, like your namesake’s favorite “macaca.” For more than a century the big cities and their apartment buildings have been occupied by Jews, gays, non-believers, immigrants, non-Protestants, and others on the hate list of the KKK and numerous current Republican politicians. Take that Ugly phrase about living like rats somewhere else. Take it to that moss-draped magnolia tree in the yard of your lovely and exclusive (no Jews, ni@@ers, gays, Catholics, immigrants, artists, or non-conformists need apply) suburb perhaps.

    BTW Your statistics ain’t shit either. Almost every big city is locked in by surrounding suburbs, and unable to annex to expand. Under current land-use policies in this country, the only place growth can occur is outside of the city limits. You have proved nothing about preferences, only described the geographic consequences of government policy.

  7. tahoevalleylines says:

    All hands in the HSR discussion are requested to read & heed this white paper recently shown on

    Click to access Lionel%20Badal%20Dissertation.pdf

    Badal’s paper is a compendium of sources on the Peak Oil phenomenon, and is useful as a source document pro & con. My experience in transport reaches back to the 1950’s, including research into the policy discussions of that period with State & Federal officials who were interested in supporting the shift from rail-based distribution to highway expansion and accompanying trucking growth. Retired now, fears expressed at the time: over-reliance on imported oil, along with using forever cheap oil as a reason/excuse to systematically dismantle the existing railway branch feeder network. Cars had taken away the passengers by the early 1950’s, the freeways were what long-haul trucking needed going forward. A mistake that shall put the very Union of States into peril for an indeterminate period lasting several decades, I fear.

    Strategic reasons to bank the branchline rail matrix were dumbed down to the Rails-to-Trails approach, which was the best that could be done with thin, de-minimus popular support for the rail mode. Taxing dormant rail lines, adding the inventory tax (to enhance just-in-time) were helpful to the trucking industry, but another strategic nail in America’s ability to meet end of the cheap oil extravaganza. Interested HSR advocates would profit from James A. Van Fleet’s “Rail Transport And The Winning Of Wars”. call AAR librarian (202-639-2100) for copy. Van Fleet writes presciently in 1956, warns of folly of relying on imported oil for transport policy, mentions eventual homeland attack, and builds case for maintaining the secondary rail network as hedge against disasters and motor fuel rationing. See Lionel Madal’s paper link above to update…

    Most arguing for & against MagLev/Steel Wheel, HSR in general, need to broaden the discussion to include thinking process as to what a near/midterm attack and or energy rationing scenario shall require as requisite investment in railway technology and emphasis. Mag/Lev is a wonderful human engineering advance, akin to the Concorde SST. Neither of these transport vanities is sustainable or justifiable when energy and across the board utility is factored in.

    The decision was helped in my case, with attendance at hearings at South Lake Tahoe, during the 1980’s when MagLev was being promoted as Tahoe Access from Reno Airport, and from the San Francisco Bay Area/Sacramento Valley. With small number of boarding points enroute, and implicit restrictions on clientele became apparent, popular support waned. Thus it was with the Concorde.

    My interest in the Linear Motor technology brought me to several HSR meetings, and I would ask how goes the effort to secure a common standard guideway, and that always seemed to pose a problem to the various proprietary sponsors. I try think like a logistics planner, and the bickering, ultimate gridlock on choosing a standard MagLev guideway ended that train of thought for me! Peaking Oil is bringing an end to this foray into what might have been.

    “Second Dimension Surface Transport Logistics Platform”, military lingo for railways, is going to help America survive the Oil Interregnum. For updated look at off-the-shelf tech, see Christopher C. Swan’s “ELECTRIC WATER” (New Society Press,2007). Other reads are James Howard Kunstler’s “The Long Emergency” and several books on the enrgy suite available to planners by Richard Heinberg, ( At The Association For The Study Of Peak Oil & Gas (, see Newsletter 42, article 374, and Newsletter 89, article 1037, basic policy points for redoing robust railway matrix.

    Timing is everything, and if we are fortunate enough to have a long Peaking Oil plateau, before the downhill side engulfs efforts to replace energy units, well & good. How big a bet do we want to make, ladies & gentlemen? Consider hedging against famine, by de-minimus rehab of the ag rail branchlines, linked to downtown warehousing interface with delivery trucking. Recommissioned Army/Guard Railroad Operating And Maintenance Battalions can initiate return to surface of the prioritized branches, turn same over to private operators & move to next on list.

    Gasoline & Diesel Rationing is not out of the question; see Fatih Birol’s comments from IEA, just a week ago. Birol is Chief Economist with the International Energy Agency, affiliated with OPEC. Rahm Emanuel, talk to Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, (R-MD) about Peaking Oil. Time to snap out of partisan childishness and get mutual understanding: America is at leading edge of energy emergency.

  8. Mad Park says:

    Thanks, Woody. Allan conveniently forgets Madison Avenue’s role in “creating demand” for suburban and exurban housing 60+ years ago. Why was this demand created? Simple – to line the pockets of the oh so benevolent highway/construction/automobile industries. When it becomes clear that these ‘burbs with their 5000 sq ft houses are no longer sustainable w/o sidewalks or transit and when petrol is US$20/ gallon, let’s check back w/ Allan!

  9. Allan says:

    Woody, if you find the phrase “living like rats” offensive and racist, then you need to get out more often. I don’t think it is neither offensive or racist so I will continue to use it when it fits. If it bothers you, then that’s just too bad.

    Woody – “Almost every big city is locked in by surrounding suburbs, and unable to annex to expand. Under current land-use policies in this country, the only place growth can occur is outside of the city limits. You have proved nothing about preferences, only described the geographic consequences of government policy.”

    My city isn’t locked in by suburbs and expands almost at will. But even that is irrelevant because the land use is set by the county for the unincorporated areas. Again, if there was a demand for “high density” living, then it would be built regardless of location. There is a niche market which is easily being met for those who choose to live such a lifestyle by converting old buildings, but it is small potatos in comparison to the amount of single-home residencies being built.

    tahoevalleylines – ” Mag/Lev is a wonderful human engineering advance, akin to the Concorde SST. Neither of these transport vanities is sustainable or justifiable when energy and across the board utility is factored in.”

    Maglev uses less energy than HSR.

    Mad Park – “Allan conveniently forgets Madison Avenue’s role in “creating demand” for suburban and exurban housing 60+ years ago. ”

    You’re about 80 years late. Demand for suburbia began with streetcars in the 1880s. In fact, they were known as “streetcar suburbs”. It wasn’t the car or Madison Avenue that began the migration to the suburbs but rail transit!

    Hybrids, PHEVs, and EVs will do more to end our dependency on foreign oil than trains or transit ever will.

  10. Woody says:

    Allan, You said “most people like having a house with a yard and not living in “high density” projects like rats.”

    Now, let us me try to be more gentle. Perhaps you don’t understand that referring to the “people .. living in ‘high-density’ projects like rats” seems to call the people living in high-rise public housing projects “rats.” But surely you see that it can be read that way.

    I told you that I personally take offense to being described as living like a rat, as someone living in a high-rise middle-income building erected on land cleared in urban renewal, And I take offense on behalf of my largely black and tan neighbors living in high-rise public housing buildings exactly five blocks north of my own high-rise to your appearing to call them rats.

    If you do continue to refer to people living in high-density housing projects as “rats,” it will betray at best an insensitivity and at worst, well, if the shoe fits, wear it.

  11. Mad Park says:

    It is not about dependence on foreign oil, it is about dependence on oil period. It is about abuse of the landscape. It is about removing millions of acres of farmland in perfectably arable areas in all parts of the country to build suburbs and exurbs with no semblance of awareness of the social and environmental costs. And, as Woody has hinted, the development of these suburbs is more than a little about racism. Open your eyes and ears, read some social and agricultural history – you’ll catch on.

  12. Allan says:

    Mad Park – “… it is about dependence on oil period.”

    The last time I researched the topic, about 40% of the oil we import is used for plastics. Even if you eliminated oil based transportation (unlikely), you’d still be using a lot of oil to make plastic.

    “It is about removing millions of acres of farmland…”

    Perhaps you live in one of the large metro areas like Woody, but there is no shortage of farmland here. Literally, I can leave my house in the middle of the city (metro pop. of approx. one million) and be in the rural area in about 15 – 20 minutes.

    “…the development of these suburbs is more than a little about racism.”

    Tell that to the middle class blacks living in the suburbs.

    BTW, I am the diversity in my neighborhood. Altho it is now in the middle of the city, my neighborhood was one of the original suburbs 90+ years ago. I love old houses with real hardwood floors and high ceilings. My yard is small but enough for my dog and my flower beds … and a few veggies.

    I have lived in Army barracks (packed in bay areas, like rats, on bunk beds), apartments, a condo, and a house larger than I have now. I’ve lived in rural areas and large metropolises.

    I’ve been on every continent except Antarctica, lived in foreign countries and I’m conversant in three other languages besides English.

    I’ve been so broke that I’ve had to sleep in back of a truck and clean up in a public restroom. Now, even in a this down market, I’m looking forward to retiring with a nice 401k.

    I’ve stood shoulder to shoulder with black soldiers and black police officers. I’ve even risked my own life to save the life of a drowning black man.

    Even when I lived out in the burbs, I had a black neighbor across the street who moved out for the same reason I did … It was a good deal in a good location. He had kids and wanted to move out to the county schools which were better than the city schools.

    My black co-workers all lived in the suburbs and thought I was nuts when I bought a house in town. They had moved out because of the crime and schools and never intended to move back.

    Racism isn’t dead tho. The comments on this board prove that some see the racial boogyman in everything.

  13. Woody says:

    Allan — Thanks for your self-defense. I appreciate better where you are coming from now. I still think you’re a little careless about saying that people like me in high density housing projects live “like rats.” That’s gonna set me off every time, and the provocation will thus disrupt an ongoing exchange of views. But I’m ready to drop it for now so we can return to our regular programming.

  14. CALI says:

    Allan do you”work” for the Reason/Cato? I have seen your “thoughts” on a few media..No one is stealing your car or truuuck..lots of farm land around you? well HELL bulldoze it so you can drive your baby semiTRRRUK home to your Mcmansion…Just dont decide for the rest of us our choice in the mode of travel .

  15. Allan says:

    Cali, I don’t work for anyone unless I’m getting paid and neither Reason nor Cato has me on the payroll.

    Cali – “Just dont decide for the rest of us our choice in the mode of travel .”

    The same holds true for you.

    While I lived in Berlin, Germany, I didn’t need a car. It has one of best, if not the best, public transit I’ve ever seen along with bike lanes almost everywhere.

    However, the city that I live in now has a public transit system worse than I’ve seen in third world countries and riding my bicycle is a dangerous adventure.

    But don’t think for a minute that the streets aren’t congested with traffic. Germans love their cars every bit as much as Americans.

    Germany has a fine network of trains while Amtrak doesn’t know how to spell network … OK, maybe they can spell it but they’re having trouble with the concept.

    Again, there is no shortage of cars on the autobahns.

  16. Woody says:

    Allan — I visited Berlin only a couple of years after the Wall fell. Every transit line was being reconnected and/or rehabbed, and the Eastern sector was full of above-ground pipes carrying fresh water, sewerage, and gas. It was an exciting thing to see, and left me full of optimism.

    And as I recall the city, it was very dense, with 5 or 6 story apartment buildings marching block after block along the streets and avenues. The Eastern sector buildings were being massively rehabbed one after another, the interiors ripped out and rebuilt with gas lines to replace the lignite-burning furnaces, and all new pipes, electric wiring, insulation, appliances, and more.

    We went searching for the address of a long-departed ancestor, and found an as-yet unrehabilitated building with the door ajar. We tiptoed in to take a look. The building may once have been grand, but when we saw it, obviously the people who were there under the Communist dictatorship had been living like caged rats, to adapt a phrase. 😉

    But as I understand it, if I were to return, that building would be fully occupied with tenants generally satisfied with their residence in that dense neighborhood.

    Even then the streets were lively, with new restaurants and bars and shops, and streetcars (since replaced by newer, better, low-floor models) running on the major thoroughfares. Nearby parks and plazas took the place of expansive back yards. Even then that particular area was not only gentrifying, but was especially popular with young people. I’m sure the population density has declined, as the rat cages were modernized into decent dwellings.

    I know Berlin didn’t have a lot of high-rise residences, only a few hotels and the like. But I thought that was due to the city more or less floating on a half-drained marshland, rather than any popular opposition to living above the ground floor.

    In recent years I’ve seen a very similar phenomenon in Harlem. The avenues are lined with old apartment buildings, mostly 6 but sometimes even 8 or 10 stories. Many of these have been rehabilitated almost Berlin-style, with all new electric, water, sewer, gas, and cable lines. On some once-vacant lots, newer buildings now reach 12 or 14 stories. New restaurants and bars and shops line the thoroughfares. Three or four subway lines take the residents to the Midtown offices and other places of work and leisure. Safe bike lanes run along the Hudson through Riverside Park and more directly through Central Park to Midtown, all at least partly separated from auto traffic. And the City keeps adding to and improving the bike lanes, so that the number of bike riders has multiplied in recent years.

    The Harlem population has probably grown in recent years, despite the fewer people per apartment or per floor resulting from the gentrification. Demand for housing there has filled the vacant lots and burned-out buildings with new tenants, many if not most of them white. You see, in NYC, the demand for dense and even high-rise housing far exceeds the supply. Harlem has been “affordable” for mostly young people drawn to the city’s range of job opportunities and rich cultural life — made possible by the dense living.

    Of course, many of these yuppies love them some BMWs in Harlem just as much as they do in Berlin. What they save on the cheaper rent can allow them to make a higher car payment.

    Very, very few of us advocating denser building and better transit think that most families able to afford cars will ever NOT want to own one. The hope is that middle-income households will be able to live with ONE car, and not need two or three, as so many do now.

    Of course, if car-owners had to pay the actual cost of parking their cars etc., they might look for other ways to use a car on weekends instead of owning one. Even today this is the one city in the country were rental car rates are actually higher on the weekend than during the week.

    Right now parking spaces in high-rise apartment buildings are required by law. Those of us without cars subsidize our fellow tenants who use the garage space to store their Beamers. But I can imagine a day soon when share-car plans make many owners rethink their budgets and drastically reduce the demand for 24/365 parking spaces

    I’m sure that we are unanimous that Amtrak service is a disgrace. We probably do disagree on whose fault that is for the most part, the so-called managers of Amtrak or the administration bureaucrats and Congresscritters who really have made all the important decisions for the past 40 years or so.

  17. Allan says:

    I actually lived in Berlin before the Wall came down. I have returned a few times since then. It was almost spooky to ride the S-bahn line that dipped under the Wall and to pass up closed stations that still had the old German style writing on the signs.

    While Berlin is indeed dense, there are plenty of open spaces and even rural areas that were inside the Wall.

    The thing about it is that the transit system was so organized … would you expect anything less from the Germans? I could go to any bus stop and know which bus would come there and what time it would be there. Any covered bus stops and all the U-bahn and S-bahn stations had maps.

    As someone who had done renovations in the past, I enjoy finding an old building and bringing it back to life. The Germans certainly had plenty of opportunity to do that after the Wall came down.

    While Berlin has changed since my days of living there, it is still one of my favorite cities.

  18. Andrew says:


    “Fourth, the interstate system was completely funded by gas taxes. One of the biggest myths that I continuely see is that highways and interstates are subsidized.”

    Of course they are subsidized. Compare the per-mile cost of the gas tax to the per mile cost of driving on a tolled road in the US. The tolled road is always higher.

    The gas tax is generated by all driving activity, but in general is only used to subsidize the construction and reconstruction of Interstate and US Highways (and state highways on the local level). So any miles you drive on a toll road or local street generate gas tax revenue to subsidize people travelling on limited access and divided highways. Additionally, local roads are generally paid out of sales and property taxes, but a large minority of the population does not even own a car. So they are paying for roads and road use by others even though they cannot and do not use them.

    Further, railroad right of ways are taxed for property taxes, and the companies are taxed for corporate income taxes, and capital improvements on them are financed at commerical grade paper rates. Highways are exempt from property tax, do not operate as profit-loss vehicles, and are financed at lower municipal/treasury bond rates. In addition to exempting highways from property taxation, their right of way also takes up land that was once subject to taxes, so that by removing it from the tax rolls, every other property owner must pay a bit more to make up the difference.

    Lastly, its plain to see that the gas tax is too low, insofar as the maintenance and expansion of our roads is concerned. All you need to do is compare them to the well maintained roads in Europe. The gas tax should obviously be much higher to actually keep the system in a state of good repair, and provide for needed expansion.

    Americans have been voting with their feet and wheels where they have an opportunity to get off the merry-go-round of the automobile culture in this era of high gas prices. Unfortunately, 90 years of extreme fiscal bias towards subsidizing the road and auto system has produced a transportation landscape where most people have no alternative to owning 2+ cars and driving them for every trip for every need. There are far too few places like Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago where it is practical for a family to live with just one car even out in the suburbs and use the train to commute.

    However, all of this is beside the point. The primary benefit not being considered in the question of whether or not to develop a comprehensive national passenger rail system of high-speed, intercity, regional, and commuter rail is how many families can be freed from owning how many cars at $800+ per month in gas, insurance, maintance, parking, toll, and vehicle costs. Even without the former dominance of downtowns in employment, it is highly practical to try to get 30% of workers living within 1/2 mile of a rail line to use that rail line for their daily commute and forgo the expense of a second car. That is a huge user benefit not being considered in these type of calculations. And the most important thing to make this practical is not recentralizing housing, but recentralizing employment. People can keep their green lawns and large houses if their job is in a centralized location accessible by rail.

    “If you want to go fast then build a maglev.”

    Talk about boondogles …

  19. Andrew says:

    NARP published city-to-city travel demand figures for 1995 from the DOT back some time ago.

    The aggregate for the Boston-DC corridor for major city pairs was 30 million trips, while Amtrak handles about 10+ million of that. The 30M figure ignores all pairings with under 100 miles of travel and under 300,000 trips per year.

    The aggregate for Houston-Dallas-San Antonio-Austin is 11 million trips, implying a modest-speed over-priced service like Amtrak offers in the northeast could capture 3-4 million trips.

  20. Woody says:

    Andrew — Not quite fair to call Amtrak’s service on the Northeast Corridor “over-priced” if you believe, as I do, that it is severely capacity constrained. The tracks are full. The tunnels are full. Acelas, Regionals, Keystone service, long distance trains to Florida, New Orleans, and Chicago, and then hundreds of commuter trains on the NEC. Amtrak can’t squeeze any more trains into the schedule. (And it doesn’t have any spare equipment to do so, Acela cars or otherwise, even it it could.) So with full trains and no room to add more, prices naturally rise to monopoly levels, or what the market will bear. That’s not wicked or even incompetent of Amtrak, that’s just the way the world works.

    Moving more Jersey Transit trains to the new Access to the Earth’s Core tunnel may free up a couple or three slots per hour for Amtrak into and out of Penn Station in NYC. That with some other steps might allow a couple more trains hourly NYC-DC, or maybe not.

    To improve the NEC, Maryland is asking for funds to double-track a stretch and start building new bridges. Likewise Delaware is applying to double-track a few miles. And MD wants to study a new tunnel under Baltimore, likely to cost a billion or a few. It will likely take many years and many billions before capacity is increased very much on the NEC. Until then, modest speeds and high-priced service.

    But save your fire about high-priced rail. In the fine print of every high-speed rail proposal that I’ve read — Ohio Hub, Detroit-Chicago, Cascades Seattle-Portland, Charlotte-Atlanta — they end up expecting a fare increase of 50% to 100%.

    I’m not sure I can get too excited about spending billions of tax dollars for trains priced for the elite. I’d prefer to add more frequencies and routes at current Amtrak prices and provide benefits for more average citizens.

  21. John Bredin says:

    “Access to the Earth’s Core tunnel”

    I love it! Highlights the absurdity of the sheer depth of the ARC tunnel, which contributes to its rail in-Access-ability to the existing Penn Station tracks and platforms.

    Chicago has a Deep Tunnel, but it’s for stormwater, not commuter trains.

  22. Andrew says:


    “it is severely capacity constrained.”

    Its not capacity constrained, for reasons I will elaborate.

    “The tracks are full. The tunnels are full.”

    The peak direction tracks and tunnels are full of trains between the Meadowlands and New York during the peak of rush hour. That’s it. 7:00a to 9:30a in the morning inbound and 4:25p to 6:55p in the afternoon outbound.

    “Acelas, Regionals, Keystone service, long distance trains to Florida, New Orleans, and Chicago, and then hundreds of commuter trains on the NEC. Amtrak can’t squeeze any more trains into the schedule.”

    Not at all true. During most of the day, there are 5 trains per hour each way on four tracks over most of the corridor, and that goes up to 9 or 10 trains per hour each way on the two tracks between the Meadowlands and New York.

    “(And it doesn’t have any spare equipment to do so, Acela cars or otherwise, even it it could.)”

    Amtrak has plenty of Amfleet cars to add to its regular trains, should it so desire. You can see them sitting in the deadline at Bear and Wilmington. The lack of cars on Acela is Amtrak’s own fault. It simply ordered trains which were too short. The Acela power cars can handle a 10 car consist at speed.

    “So with full trains and no room to add more”

    Amtrak generally runs its trains at a length of 4-5 cars (Keystone), 6 cars (Acela), or 8 cars (Regional). The northeast corrdior platforms at the major stations (NYC, Newark, 30th St., Wilmington, Baltimore, DC) are 18 cars in length. At the minor stations (Metropark, Princeton, Trenton, BWI, New Carrolton), they are 12 cars in length. Obviously, Amtrak could run longer trains, like the Pennsy used to do, if it wanted to carry more people. As recently as 5 years ago, Amtrak regularly ran 10, 12, 14, and 16 car trains at rush hour.

    Also, its wrong to assume every Amtrak train is full. They aren’t, even at rush hour, except on a handful of trains.

    NJT also does not operate all of its trains at a full consist length. Many NJ Coast trains are just 6 cars long, and many of the locomotive hauled trains are only 9 or 10 cars long. NJT runs 12 car EMU trains on the main stem of the corridor. Obviously some of their trains could be longer and haul more people.

    “In the fine print of every high-speed rail proposal that I’ve read — Ohio Hub, Detroit-Chicago, Cascades Seattle-Portland, Charlotte-Atlanta — they end up expecting a fare increase of 50% to 100%.”

    The prices on those routes are literally dirt cheap right now, because the train does not offer a travel experience with any value. OTOH, the prices on the NEC are purposefully high to drive away business because Amtrak believes this holds down costs.

  23. karizorn says:

    Hey, you have a great blog here! I’m definitely going to bookmark you! Thank you for your info.And this is **construction safety** site/blog. It pretty much covers ###safety article## related stuff.

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August 2009


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