Professor Glaeser published part 2 of his economic analysis of the viability of high speed rail in the Economix blog on the New York Times. I am not going to dispute any of Glaeer’s math, as I am not an economist, I am a law student. If any of the readers of the Transit Pass have commentary on Glaeser’s analysis, please feel free to contribute.
I have a problem with many of Glaeser’s choices, starting with his choice to begin his analysis based on a high speed rail link between Houston and Dallas. If you look at my post from yesterday, with the radical cartography map, you’ll see that neither Houston nor Dallas has exceptional public transit systems, especially in terms of downtown rail systems. As Glaeser points out:
How many riders will take high-speed rail between Houston and Dallas? Amtrak gets about 11 million customers in the Northeast Corridor, which has four large consolidated metropolitan areas together totaling 44 million people. If that four-to-one ratio held in Texas, then the high-speed rail link could expect three million riders, and more to come as Texas grows.
But as President Obama has said one of the appeals of high-speed rail is “walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination.” That’s bad news for Texas. In Dallas less than 5 percent of the population takes public transportation to work, and more than 60 percent of all jobs are more than 10 miles from the city center. For these reasons, driving will continue to be extremely attractive for travelers who want to save parking fees and need cars once they arrive. I’ll go with 1.5 million trips a year (even including future growth), which would make the new rail line about as popular as all airplane flights between the two cities are today.
Why hasn’t Glaeser started out by analyzing a California high speed path or improved high speed rail in the Northeast, or even with Chicago as a hub, where public transportation is a priority? All I can think is he is out to make a point in a dishonest way, covering it over with numbers.
Moreover, Glaeser oddly ignores the value of energy efficiency, especially in light of the news that our oil is running out (H/T Infrastructurist). One of the great values of rail is that it moves large number of passengers not only quickly, but in an energy efficient way that does not necessarily depend on fossil fuels. Given that the cost (forget about the economic harm of burning fossil fuels) of jet fuel and gasoline is bound to go up, Glaeser significantly undercuts the utility rail (high speed or not). Rail, as he points out, is not a short term investment, and the efficiency and value of it is bound to go up over decades and centuries, especially as we learn to rely on renewable electricity. (I know that Glaeser promises to bring up environment and congestion in later posts, but his decision to show inefficiencies first makes him seem like a hack).
However, my biggest problem is that Glaeser makes any means of transportation of people as something that should be profitable. I am all for self-sustaining rail transit, but this country has never sought to make transportation self-sustainable. The hundreds of billions of dollars we’ve spent on roads and airports are not even close to reimbursed by gas taxes and tolls. Rather, we must swallow hard and realize that just as we invested in roads that were costly but likely to get more expensive and less efficient in time we need expensive new means of transportation. I agree with Glaeser though that we should optimize the costs and place high speed rail where it will be best used and least costly (first at least).