Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Whether Trillions Or Billions, High-Speed Rail Costs Are Too High

Here's the "word" from upstate New York, the former home of my wasted youth.  Arithmetic is not my strong suit.  I was sick the day they taught it in school and apparently missed the entire curriculum.

So, when Michael Doyle accepts $50,000,000 per mile for high-speed rail track, and quotes Edward Glaeser for that number, who am I to argue? Except that think that I would have taken other factors into account, like the difference between a brand-new corridor vs. the expansion of existing rail corridors by upgrades or additional tracks.  

HSR, the kind we are supposed to have in California, is not comfortable running on freight-carrier owned rail corridors.  Indeed, Union Pacific prohibits HSR on any of its corridors.  What they are calling HSR in other states, outside of Florida or California, is Amtrak upgrades, dressed up to look like high-speed rail, but it isn't, really.  Let's just say the costs per mile will be, once the bids start coming in, between $50 million and $100 million per mile. I'm assuming that Upstate New York is looking at the really fast kind of train, not merely Amtrak upgrades.

Is that important?  California HSR enthusiasts look forward (at least those young enough to stay alive until it's completed) to 800 miles of high-speed rail, from Sacramento to San Diego.  At $100 million per mile, that's $80 billion.  Will that include train stations, rolling stock, power sub-stations, maintenance yards, and other support necessities?  Round it up to $100 billion.

Since there is no longer any doubt that this train, if ever completed, will require eternal operation subsidies, and those must come from the State, not from Washington, the question arises, what if most people can't afford the tickets to ride, like in China, for example? The cheaper the tickets, the more riders to be sure, but also the more subsidies will be required.  Is that OK with all us taxpayers, including all those who may not ride the train at all, or only take it once in our lifetimes?

We are, more or less, OK with paying taxes for public schools, since all our kids go to school, as we did.  But this train is different. It's more like expensive private schools, only built and run by the government.  Maybe that's something the government has no business doing, any more than building and operating exclusive golf courses or health spas.

OK, I do find a problem with some of Doyle's arithmetic.  He says that the cost, at $50 million per mile from Albany to Buffalo will be an eye-popping $14.5 trillion dollars.  Sorry, Michael, it's 288 miles as the car rolls on the NY Thruway.  That's $14.4 billion on my calculator. While that's a lot less, it's still an outrageous amount of tax dollars for a fast train-ride from Albany to Buffalo.  There are related questions to this analysis.  What is the exact route? What is the terrain it has to go through?  Will it go through or around various cities, like Troy, Utica, Syracuse and Rochester?

Need I point out here that ANY rail project in the world always begins with low-ball cost projections that double and triple by the time the project is completed?   

But, there's an even more important question; does it make any sense whatsoever to build a high-speed train between those cities?  And, if those cities, why not all the others?  Should the US be blowing $50 million per mile on railroad track to connect any two cities in the US?  Are we all that crazy?

Isn't it time for some harsh realities to sink in? We can't afford every whim some of us might have, regardless of how attractive. If we are cutting education costs by firing thousands of teachers, cutting curriculum (including science and arithmetic), shortening school schedules, etc., should we be spending dollars that could go for education on a fancy luxury train that goes fast? Where are our priorities?

Let me ask again, are we that crazy?

High Speed Folly
Apr 16, 2011    

Written by
Michael Doyle 
Congresswoman Slaughters recent op-ed in support of high-speed rail was magic. After all, I love train travel and can see myself whizzing across New York in a bullet type train. She recalls the naysayers about the Erie Canal, and talks about the cost of the war in Afghanistan. Like most magicians, she has us looking at one hand, so we dont see what the other hand is up to. In this case, its spending trillions of dollars of taxpayer money.

According to Harvard Economist Edward Glaeser at The NY Times.com, the cost of construction of High Speed Rail can be reasonably estimated at $50 Million per Mile. That's right; to construct a rail line across NY State from Albany to buffalo would cost $14.5 Trillion Dollars [?]. It would actually cost MORE than that because I am not factoring in the interest you have to pay to borrow the money to build it. I am not an economist.

Glaeser also cites annual maintenance costs of $200,000 per mile meaning it would cost $58 million dollars per year to maintain the run from Albany to Buffalo. Operating costs would be between 30 cents and 45 cents per passenger mile. Using the lower estimate, it would cost $145 million dollars per year for 1 million people to take the high-speed train each year.

So add it all together; the Buffalo to Albany High Speed Ticket would cost $145 to break even on operating cost if we could get 1 million people a year to take the trip. In order to pay off the $14.5 Trillion dollars [?] it cost to build over 100 years without interest, the ticket would cost $290 before inflation. Or the taxpayers would have to continue to subsidize the cost of operation even more.

The question is, will 1 million people a year, for 10 years, take the train instead of driving. Gas would have to be more than $20 a gallon for it to be the same cost as a high speed rail ticket, using an average MPG of 20.

Of course, the real reason people drive is because they need their car when they arrive, and public transportation in most upstate cities does not suffice. No matter the cost of the ticket or the speed of the trip, most people with cars will still drive.

I love the magic of the train, but the economics of this don't work for me. We do need to lessen our reliance on foreign oil, and create jobs in the United States. At a 10-year cost of nearly $30 Trillion, this money should be spent improving our local transportation, rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, and working toward energy independence in a more effective way. Or maybe a tax cut.