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.