The Obama Administration's Mass Transit Policy: A Solution In Search Of A Problem

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on July 3, 2009

I like the idea of fast and shiny trains speeding passengers hither and yon as much as anyone else does. I took the Eurostar from London to Paris, and back again a dozen years ago and was enchanted. It was nice, it was convenient, it was cozy, and it was almost sumptuous (it would have qualified for full-on sumptuous, perhaps, if I weren’t traveling with a particular hungover teenager who had vomited on the floor of the train station in plain sight of me while queuing up for the train ride back to London). Taking the train can be a romantic, exotic experience that leaves the passenger feeling delightfully cosmopolitan. If I never have the chance to take the Orient Express, I shall be very disappointed.

So, I suppose that there is a part of me that is attracted to the Obama Administration’s plan to institute high-speed rail service throughout the country. But as Ed Glaeser informs us, this plan is not nearly as workable as the Administration seems to think it is:

Despite investments in speedy Acela trains, politics and right-of-way problems mean that those trains take 210 minutes to travel the 200 miles between Boston and New York. Those problems are unlikely to vanish.

For most workers in America’s sprawling metropolitan areas, no train is going to drop them within walking distance of their home or job. In Greater Houston, only 11.6 percent of jobs are within three miles of an area’s center and more than 55 percent of jobs are more than 10 miles away from the city center. In Chicago, almost 70 percent of employment is more than 10 miles from the city center. Even in Greater Boston, 48 percent of jobs are over 10 miles from Beacon Hill.

There is a reason why 48 percent of Amtrak’s passengers travel on only two routes: the Northeast Corridor and the Los Angeles-San Diego line. For travelers in the less-dense areas between the coasts, cars beat trains for modest distances and planes win over long hauls.

The national high-speed rail agenda is being pushed with claims that these trains will jump-start economic growth. No serious evidence supports such claims. When new transportation does affect local economies, it generally does so by moving activity from one place to another, not by creating nationwide benefits.

I am not even going to try to hide my disappointment. I had hoped that this plan would be practical and workable. I had hoped that it would serve as a genuine solution to a genuine problem.

Unfortunately, we have yet another case of the Obama Administration offering a policy proposal in search of an actual policy dilemma. And the Administration wants to throw good money after bad to implement the proposal–making the fiscal situation even more disastrous in the process, no doubt. I am beginning to wonder whether Barack Obama ever saw a budget deficit number he thought was too high.

(Glaeser link via Greg Mankiw.)

Previous post:

Next post: