Washington Post Writes Off High Speed Rail

The Washington Post today editorialized against further investments in high-speed rail, writing:

“When it comes to high-speed rail, Europe, Japan and Taiwan have two natural advantages over every region of the United States, with the possible exception of the Northeast Corridor – high gas taxes and high population density. If high-speed rail turned into a money pit under relatively favorable circumstances, imagine the subsidies it would require here. Every dollar spent to subsidize high-speed rail is a dollar that cannot be spent modernizing highways, expanding the freight rail system or creating private-sector jobs. The Obama administration insists we dare not lag the rest of the world in high-speed rail. Actually, this is a race everyone loses.”

This may be the clearest indicator yet that the issue may be effectively “dead.” While supported by the Obama Administration, the projects are not funded and the general public appears to be turning against the expensive projects.

While Reason Foundation has written critically about high-speed rail for years–see our Due Diligence report on California, recent report on Florida’s ill-advised project, and my series of posts on China and Spain–the Post editorial notably cites a report issued in July 2010 by the World Bank. The report surveyed the experience to date with high-speed rail in Asia and Europe and the results leave anyone with a modicum of objectivity skeptical about its potential in the U.S.

This, of course, raises another important point. In reality, the Obama Administration’s support for high-speed rail has been far more hype than substance. The message from the White House and U.S. Department of Transportation appears to be: Jobs, jobs, jobs. The rhetoric ignores the efficiency of these investments. Investments in transportation generate economic benefits only if they improve economic efficiency and productivity. Jobs (and income) are indirect effects of increased productivity. Much of the spending on high-speed rail seems to be focused on building physical infrastructure in markets and places where it is not needed or wanted. Many of the corridors envision high-speed rail as a pure substitute for other modes, such as the car or air travel, even though the costs would be higher (necessitating public subsidies) and travel times would be longer.

In short, the economic case for high-speed rail has not been made, and we are deeply skeptical it can be made outside very well defined and narrow corridors like the Northeast (north of Washington, D.C.).