High-Speed Rail Plans Are Misconceived

What problem are these trains solving? Who will pay the annual operating costs?

As someone who loves riding trains, it pains me to say that the Obama administration’s high-speed rail initiative is misconceived. It appears to be a solution in search of a problem, or problems, to be solved. Let’s examine the usual rationales.

To reduce greenhouse gases?

Recent analysis by researchers at UC Berkeley found that high-speed rail may yield only marginal net greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions, once the impacts of constructing it are included – especially if ridership falls short of official projections. And the cost of those GHG reductions is very high-in the vicinity of $2,000 per ton. Compare that to other low-hanging-fruit reductions that cost more like $50 per ton.

To reduce our petroleum dependence?

That’s not very plausible, when all but two of the funded projects are diesel-powered. And a recent analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that non-subsidized inter-city bus service is much less energy-intensive (BTUs per passenger mile) than highly subsidized inter-city rail.

To provide Americans with a new transportation choice?

As a rail fan, I’d like that-but I don’t think my fellow taxpayers should be forced to pay for this new choice. At least not when intercity highway and intercity air travel are self-supporting from user taxes.

To provide congestion relief?

Most traffic congestion is urban, not inter-city. And to the extent that high-speed rail serves commuters, it becomes slower-speed rail.

To keep up with Europe & Japan?

This kind of rationale ignores major differences between the United States and the counties where high-speed rail (HSR) plays a significant role.

In Europe and Japan, cities are far more centralized, so trips from city-center to city-center (where rail goes) serve a much higher fraction of trips than they would in this country (apart from the Northeast Corridor). And the cost of alternatives is much higher in these countries. Driving costs far more due to both high toll rates and much higher fuel taxes. For example, driving from Paris to Marseilles involves $75 in one-way tolls plus $6 a gallon for gas. Inter-city bus is not available at all in France. And air fares are higher, too, especially in Japan.

With less likelihood of attracting high ridership than in Europe or Japan, we can be sure that none of these U.S. projects, if built, will recover their capital costs, so they will not attract private investment the way toll roads, airports, or seaports can. (Only two overseas HSR lines-Paris to Lyon and Tokyo to Osaka-have recovered their capital costs.) That means already deficit-riddled, hard-pressed states will have to come up with the portion of capital costs not funded by federal taxpayers. Likewise, lower ridership than overseas makes it doubtful these lines will break even on operating costs, thereby requiring ongoing, annual operating subsidies-from some unknown source of funding.

As I told a reporter the other day, given these dismal economics, my advice to states is to look before they leap. These federal high-speed rail grants may be the gift that keeps on taking from taxpayers.

Robert Poole is director of transportation studies at Reason Foundation.

Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.

Surface Transportation

In the field of surface transportation, Poole has advised the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the White House Office of Policy Development, National Economic Council, Government Accountability Office, and state DOTs in numerous states.

Poole's 1988 policy paper proposing privately financed toll lanes to relieve congestion directly inspired California's landmark private tollway law (AB 680), which authorized four pilot toll projects including the successful 91 Express Lanes in Orange County. More than 20 other states and the federal government have since enacted similar public-private partnership legislation. In 1993, Poole oversaw a study that coined the term HOT (high-occupancy toll) Lanes, a term which has become widely accepted since.

California Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Poole to the California's Commission on Transportation Investment and he also served on the Caltrans Privatization Advisory Steering Committee, where he helped oversee the implementation of AB 680.

From 2003 to 2005, he was a member of the Transportation Research Board's special committee on the long-term viability of the fuel tax for highway finance. In 2008 he served as a member of the Texas Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Roads, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. In 2009, he was a member of an Expert Review Panel for Washington State DOT, advising on a $1.5 billion toll mega-project. In 2010, he was a member of the transportation transition team for Florida's Governor-elect Rick Scott. He is a member of two TRB standing committees: Congestion Pricing and Managed Lanes.


Poole is a member of the Government Accountability Office's National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel and he has testified before the House and Senate's aviation subcommittees on numerous occasions. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Poole consulted the White House Domestic Policy Council and the leadership of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

He has also advised the Federal Aviation Administration, Office of the Secretary of Transportation, White House Office of Policy Development, National Performance Review, National Economic Council, and the National Civil Aviation Review Commission on aviation issues. Poole is a member of the Critical Infrastructure Council of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation and of the Air Traffic Control Association.

Poole was among the first to propose the commercialization of the U.S. air traffic control system, and his work in this field has helped shape proposals for a U.S. air traffic control corporation. A version of his corporation concept was implemented in Canada in 1996 and was more recently endorsed by several former top FAA administrators.

Poole's studies also launched a national debate on airport privatization in the United States. He advised both the FAA and local officials during the 1989-90 controversy over the proposed privatization of Albany (NY) Airport. His policy research on this issue helped inspire Congress' 1996 enactment of the Airport Privatization Pilot Program and the privatization of Indianapolis' airport management under Mayor Steve Goldsmith.

General Background

Robert Poole co-founded the Reason Foundation with Manny Klausner and Tibor Machan in 1978, and served as its president and CEO from then until the end of 2000. He was a member of the Bush-Cheney transition team in 2000. Over the years, he has advised the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations on privatization and transportation policy.

Poole is credited as the first person to use the term "privatization" to refer to the contracting-out of public services and is the author of the first-ever book on privatization, Cutting Back City Hall, published by Universe Books in 1980. He is also editor of the books Instead of Regulation: Alternatives to Federal Regulatory Agencies (Lexington Books, 1981), Defending a Free Society (Lexington Books, 1984), and Unnatural Monopolies (Lexington Books, 1985). He also co-edited the book Free Minds & Free Markets: 25 Years of Reason (Pacific Research Institute, 1993).

Poole has written hundreds of articles, papers, and policy studies on privatization and transportation issues. His popular writings have appeared in national newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, and numerous other publications. He has also been a guest on network television programs such as Good Morning America, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News Tonight, and the CBS Evening News. Poole writes a monthly column on transportation issues for Public Works Financing.

Poole earned his B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and did graduate work in operations research at New York University.