Harvard economist Ed Glaeser has a useful article in the Boston Globe on the proper role of mass transit. Specifically, he takes the Obama Administration to task for its confusion over the difference between mass transit and high-speed rail.
There is little “mass” transit in high-speed rail; it’s a niche market serving intercity travelers. Real mass transit needs to be near people with access to a broad base of regional travelers. Unfortunately, even when we put transit in the right places, it faces an uphill battle.
Glaesjer also notes that high-speed rail is expensive, about $30 operating subsidy per trip. In contrast, Boston’s mass transit subsidy averages about $2 per trip.
“The problem is that while common sense requires transportation modes and spending to be targeted to the local environment, politics demands that federal programs spend everywhere. A serious high-speed rail project would forget about Texas and focus on saving hours in the Northeast Corridor. A rational transportation program would target money to the areas that have the most congestion. A smart transportation policy would recognize the wisdom of using our existing infrastructure more efficiently, with the help of congestion pricing, rather than building more roads. Unfortunately, wisdom seems to take wing whenever politicians start envisioning the shining splendor of fast trains.”