America is too big for high-speed rail

Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post is likely the most widely read economics columnist in the country and his column today on why high-speed rail isn't right for America shows why.

Here's the key graph:

“President Obama calls high-speed rail essential 'infrastructure' when it's actually old-fashioned 'pork barrel.' The interesting question is why it retains its intellectual respectability. The answer, it seems, is willful ignorance. People prefer fashionable make-believe to distasteful realities. They imagine public benefits that don't exist and ignore costs that do.”

Among the facts the willfully ignorant choose over and over to ignore is the fact high-speed rail simply doesn't offer a sufficiently attractive alternative to air and auto travel to justify its cost, and given its inherent weaknesses and the nation's suburban-oriented population demographics, it won't any time soon, according to Samuelson.

“Indeed, inter-city trains — at whatever speed — target such a small part of total travel that the changes in oil use, congestion or greenhouse gases must be microscopic,” Samuelson said.

“Every day, about 140 million Americans go to work, with about 85 percent driving an average of 25 minutes (three-quarters drive alone, 10 percent carpool). Even assuming 250,000 high-speed rail passengers, there would be no visible effect on routine commuting, let alone personal driving,” he said.

“In the Northeast Corridor, with about 45 million people, Amtrak's daily ridership is 28,500. If its trains shut down tomorrow, no one except the affected passengers would notice.”

In other words:

“We are prisoners of economic geography. Suburbanization after World War II made most rail travel impractical. From 1950 to 2000, the share of the metropolitan population living in central cities fell from 56 percent to 32 percent, report UCLA economists Leah Platt Boustan and Allison Shertzer in a new study. Jobs moved too. Trip origins and destinations are too dispersed to support most rail service.”

Go here for the rest of a thoughtful, important column that provides multiple insights into why Smart Growth transportation thinking is simply incapable of coming to grips with the real world of America circa 2010.

 

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