Commentary

Opposing View: Fast Train to Nowhere

Would truly high-speed rail work in the USA?

Experts agree that the most successful rail corridors in Europe and Japan are those linking major cities 100 miles to 400 miles apart. What many studies neglect to mention, however, is that those cities are highly concentrated, with major fractions of their jobs in a traditional “central business district,” unlike the large majority of decentralized U.S. metro areas. So most people there do want to go downtown-to-downtown, whereas most Americans need to travel suburb-to-suburb.

Countries such as France, Italy, Spain and Japan are also more attractive for high-speed rail because the cost of driving there is so much higher. Not only are gas taxes three to five times higher, but most of their intercity highways are toll roads. In addition, America has the world’s most competitive airline markets, so our cost of flying is also lower.

Measured against international critieria, only a handful of U.S. corridors&emdash;Boston-NYC-Washington and maybe Los Angeles-San Francisco&emdash;are potentially good candidates for high-speed rail. But even here we must question the value proposition.

Amtrak estimates it would cost $117 billion to build true high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor. Yet its own numbers show an annual operating loss of more than $350 per passenger if annualized capital costs are included.

The California project is now estimated to cost $66 billion&emdash;about twice what Warren Buffet paid for the (profitable) Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. Reviews of projected ridership in California suggest the project would not even cover its operating costs, let alone the enormous construction cost.

But shouldn’t the federal government do for high-speed rail what it previously did for highways, airports and seaports&emdash;i.e., pay for and build the infrasructure and let private parties operate it? Those making this argument forget that our intercity highways, airports and seaports are self-funded. User taxes and user fees (tolls) cover both the capital and operating costs of these major transportation infrastructures.

By contrast, high-speed rail is like urban rail projects in which general taxpayers, not users, are asked to cough up the hundreds of billions in capital costs needed to make these uneconomic “investments.”

At a time when federal and state governments are living beyond our means, they should not be pouring taxpayer money into high-speed rail.

Robert W. Poole Jr. is director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared at USAToday.com.

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.

Aviation

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.