Disappointment 2050

The political transit bloggers are talking about the new RPA/America 2050 report on high-speed rail published by the Lincoln Institute, which recommends a focus on the Northeast and California. Unfortunately, this is not an accurate description of the report. Although it does indeed propose to start with the Northeast and California, that’s not the focus of the report; instead, the focus is to argue that HSR is everything its boosters claim it is and then some more, and demand more money for HSR, from whatever source.

Look more closely at the section proposing to focus on New York and California. Although the authors say the US should prioritize, minimal argument was offered for why these are the best options. The report shows the map from the RPA’s study on the subject, which proposes a few other priorities and isn’t that good to begin with (it grades cities on connecting transit based on which modes they have, not how much they’re used). But it says nothing more; I’d have been interested to hear about metro area distribution questions as discussed on pages 113-5 in Reinhard Clever’s thesis and pp. 10-11 of his presentation on the same topic, and alignment and regional rail integration questions such as those discussed by the much superior Siemens Midwest study, but nothing like that appears in this report.

The report then pivots to the need to come up with $40 billion for California and $100 billion for the Northeast Corridor, under either the RPA’s gold-plated plan or Amtrak’s equally stupid Vision. The RPA first came up with the idea of spending multiple billions on brand new tunnels under Philadelphia, which was then copied by the Vision, and wants trains to go through Long Island to New Haven through an undersea tunnel. Clearly, cost-effectiveness is not the goal. Since the methodology of finding the best routes is based on ridership per km, offering a gold-plated plan is the equivalent of trying to connect much longer distances without a corresponding increase in ridership, which goes against the original purpose of the RPA study.

Together with the neglect of corridors that scored high on the RPA’s study but have not had official high-speed rail proposals costing in the tens of billions (the SNCF proposal and the above-mentioned Siemens report are neither official nor affiliated with the RPA), the conclusion is not favorable. The most charitable explanation is that the RPA was looking for an official vehicle to peddle its own Northeast HSR plan but actually believes it has merit. The least charitable is that the RPA wants to see spending on HSR megaprojects regardless of cost-effectiveness.

The treatment of other issues surrounding HSR is in line with a booster mentality, in which more is always better. Discussing station placement, the report talks about the development benefits that come from downtown stations and the lack of benefit coming from exurban stations, as nearly all stations on LGVs are. It does not talk about the tradeoff in costs and benefits; others have done so, for example the chief engineer of Britain’s High Speed 2, who also talks about other interesting tradeoffs such as speed versus capacity versus reliability, but the report prefers to just boost the most expensive plan.

More specifically, the report contrasts CBD stations, suburban stations, and exurban stations. In reality, many stations are outside the CBD but still in the urban core with good transit connections, such as Shin-Osaka, Lyon Part-Dieu, and 30th Street Station, but those are implicitly lumped with beet field stations. This helps make spending billions on tunnels through Philadelphia, as both the RPA and Amtrak propose, look prudent, when in reality both Japan and France are happy to avoid urban tunneling and instead build major city stations in conveniently urban neighborhoods. In fact, Japan’s own boosters and lobbyists crow about the development around such stations.

In line with either view of the report’s purpose, the literature it studies is partial. Discussing the effect of HSR on development, it quotes a study about the positive effect of HSR on small towns in Germany on the Cologne-Frankfurt line, but not other studies done in other countries. For example, in Japan, the effect of the Shinkansen on the Tohoku and Joetsu regions was decidedly mixed. The report also quotes the positive story of Lille’s TGV-fueled redevelopment, which was not replicated anywhere else in France, where cities just passively waited for infrastructure to rescue them. But instead of talking about Lille’s program of redevelopment, the report contrasts it with failed development cases in cities with exurban stations, never mind that no city achieved what Lille did, even ones with downtown stations, like Marseille. It’s not quite a Reason-grade lie, but it’s still very misleading.

Finally, the section about how to fund the $100 billion Northeast system and California’s $43 billion starter line has suggestions that are so outlandish they defy all explanation. The authors propose the following:

1. Raise the gas tax by 15 cents a gallon or more. Several cents could be devoted to passenger rail.

2. Add a $1 surcharge on current passenger rail tickets to produce approximately $29 million annually.

3. Shift from a national gas tax to a percentage tax on crude oil and imported refined petroleum products. RAND estimated that an oil tax of 17 percent would generate approximately $83 billion a year. Five billion dollars of this amount could be dedicated to passenger rail.

Of these, proposal #2 is by far the stupidest. Amtrak receives subsidies; to tax tickets is to propose shifting some change from the left pocket to the right pocket. Why not go ahead and propose to reduce Amtrak’s subsidy by the same amount and require it to raise fares or improve efficiency?

But proposals #1 and 3 are equally bad. Wedding train funding to a steady stream of gas taxes has been the status quo for decades; the result is that APTA is so used to this unholy marriage that it opposed a climate change bill that would tax gas without diverting the funds back to transportation. (That by itself should be reason for good transit advocates to dismiss APTA as a hostile organization, just one degree less malevolent than Reason and Cato and one degree less obstructionist than the FRA.) And if it were a wise long-term choice, if it were politically feasible to add to the gas tax just to build competing trains, the US political climate would look dramatically different, and instead of talking about focus, we’d be talking about how to extend the under-construction Florida HSR line.

A report that was serious about a mode shift from cars to cleaner forms of transportation would not talk about 15 cents per gallon; it would talk in terms of multiple dollars per gallon, as gas is taxed in Europe and high-income Asia. The best explanation I can think of for the funding mechanisms is that the RPA has internalized the tax-as-user-fee model of ground transportation, one that has never worked for cars despite the AAA’s pretense otherwise and that won’t work for anything else.

The overall tone of the report slightly reminds me of Thomas MacDonald’s Highway Education Board, with its industry-sponsored “How Good Roads Help the Religious Life of My Community” essay contests. It reminds me of Thomas Friedman’s “win, win, win, win, win” columns even more – which is unsurprising since I think of Friedman as the archetypal booster – but when this boosterism applies not to a policy preference but to spending very large amounts of public money, I begin to suspect that it’s advertising rather than optimism. Friedman for all his faults crows about American and Indian entrepreneurs inventing new things rather than about extracting $100 billion from the Northeast to pay for unnecessary greenfield tunneling.

Therefore, good transit activists should dismiss this report, and avoid quoting it as evidence that prioritizing is necessary. This was not what the RPA was preaching back when it thought it could get away with proposing more, and the rest of the report is so shoddy it’s not a reliable source of analysis. There may be other reasons to focus on those corridors, but the RPA did not argue them much, instead preferring to literally go for big bucks.


  1. Beta Magellan

    Luckily for good transit advocates, the paywall might discourage further dissemination of the report. 😉

    IMO, intercity rail advocates should stop being foxes and start being hedgehogs—concentrate on where and how rail can actually succeed as a way to get from city to city and why in those cases it’s the superior alternative. In contrast, most intercity rail advocates seem to emphasize secondary or tertiary benefits. Although I see the appeal of this “fox” advocacy—making it mean all things to all people to build as broad a coalition as possible, and people are more responsive to promises of economic growth, shiny new buildings and environmental miracles than they are to the more wonky transportation stuff—it strikes me as self-defeating in the long run. Not only does it make your argumentsmore vulnerable to attack (since you’re on shakier ground), but even if a line’s successful in terms of mode share and revenue, it may still come across as a disappointment if it leaves a lot of promises unfulfilled.

    And of course, if you focus on secondary and tertiary benefits, you end up with intercity transit designed to for property development rather than, you know, intercity travel—new Philadelphia tunnels and the Palmdale dogleg probably being the best examples of this.

  2. jim

    Yours is a “technical” response to a “political” report.

    There is very little new content to this report. It’s amazing how much recycling of content the authors get away with (though my favourite map is included [figure 6 on p.14], so I want to forgive the recycling). But the point of the report is not to provide new analysis of HSR in the US. The point is to create a pseudo-event — the release of the report — which will prompt favourable writeups for HSR generally and for California and the Northeast in particular. The reporters who have written of the release of the report have all talked about initial expenditures in the Northeast and California, even though that isn’t the focus of the report. I’m sure that’s because that’s what Petra Todorovich told them to say. If they hadn’t written about the report, they’d have written about the California push-poll: HSR doomed.

    Petra Todorovich is one of the unsung heroines of the struggle to improve passenger rail in the US. She is indefatigable: lobbying Congressional staffs, pitching reporters, organizing comment on FRA rulemaking, being available for quotes. Yes, she’s a booster. Boosterism is needed, particularly when there is organized opposition — and there is organized opposition to passenger rail in general, HSR in particular. If in the course of boostering, she manufactures a report or two, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Technical criticism of the report misses the point.

    • Alon Levy

      Fair enough, but is she really doing behind the scenes stuff regarding FRA rules? Because in public, all she talks about is the need for more funding, more sources of funding, and more dedicated funding. It really does sound like the Highway Education Board era.

      • jim

        She cries more, more, more because the opposition cries less, even less, zero. The conversation is Washington about passenger rail is not very subtle these days.

    • Danny

      It is disingenuous propaganda and is seen exactly as such by the people that are needed for approval. It does no convincing, it merely rallies those that are already rallied. This might work for a battle, where binary opposition fights to destroy each other. It doesn’t work in a democratic society where policy is the objective. The whole “you are with me or you are against me” attitude leaves a sea of ambivalent bystanders that, contrary to their feelings, end up in the “against” camp.

      You can count me as one of those ambivalent bystanders. As background, I’m a conservative and have voted on four separate occasions where urban transit expansions were on the table. Three times I have voted against, and one time I voted for. The difference was that on three occasions I was treated as an asshole by people that didn’t have answers to difficult questions, and on one occasion they knew the answers before I even asked. In the city where I voted for expansion (SLC), there have been subsequent expansions…going into places that are nearly pure red territory. That didn’t happen because boosters rallied the troops…that happened because the project promoters were technicals.

      So yes, technical criticism of the report is exactly the point.

      • Beta Magellan

        Your story reminds me of one I heard from the Denver RTA’s former GM at a conference. When a sales tax was put on the ballot and public meetings about potential extensions were scheduled (I think it was FasTracks, though it could have been T-REX), he was not permitted—I think by law, but possibly just by the RTA board—to do any sort of advocacy for the project and could only describe the RTA’s plans. Furthermore, anti-rail members of the board would either sit in on meetings or send political allies there to make doubly sure no advocacy went on. So, the agency was extra-careful not to sell their vision, but only present it.

        The measure passed, including in some deep-red areas. Much of that can be attributed to some previous success with rail and keeping projects under control, but I think the RTA ostensibly neutral attitude had something to do with it as well. It showed, but didn’t push, maybe giving people confidence that they were being left to make up their own minds. Although Denver’s existing and planned rail network has a lot that would be picked apart here (an over-reliance on park-and-rides and an FRA-compliant airport link come to mind), the take-away point is that the agency designed a network well-suited to the region’s perceived needs and didn’t necessarily need lots of glossy salesmanship to get concrete poured.

        (At least that’s the impression I have—if anybody more familiar with Denver wants to complicate my fable feel free too).

        • Andre Lot

          Couple months ago there was a discussion on this on the Human Transit blog.

          Too often, the agencies discussing a transit project of their own sideline any opposition and alienate any concerned voices. That usually stems from the fact that, with few exceptions, opposition to transit projects usually come from groups that are less likely to use the systems but left with the bill to pay for it (usually on the form of sales tax add-ons).

          Agencies of systems whose mile-passenger shares are slim in their area they operate usually become an easy(ier) political target and go on the defensive. Then, when presenting projects, they will try to fend off any criticism or questioning of their project.

  3. Henry Porter

    Really Jim? It’s not a bad thing if somebody “manufactures a report or two” to advance the silly cause of HSR? Rail advocates already have a deserved reputation for manufacturing inflated ridership projections and revenue estimates. Do you wonder why there is organized opposition?

    • jim

      This is Washington. Conservative think tanks manufacture reports all the time and, unlike the America 2050 report, fill them with invented material. If you want to take offense, take offense at that.

    • Alon Levy

      To be fair, it’s the unorganized opposition that cares about costs and benefits. The organized opposition hates rail in direct proportion to how useful it is; Cox and Poole attacked Florida HSR, not Sunrail. (I’m reminded by the Mad Magazine comic about a Johnnie Walker caricature, who, when asked if he ever lost a trial, he answered yes, one of his clients was innocent and he couldn’t get him acquitted.)

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