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.