High-speed train construction gets derailed

It looks like Americans in support of a high-speed rail system will either have to break out their checkbooks or their car keys. Several state governors have cited budgetary issues in their reasoning for turning down the Obama administration’s offer of federal funding for the construction of high-speed rails through their respective states. This argument, at least according to the governors who said “no” to the funding, is based on the fact that federal funding doesn’t foot the entire rail construction bill. In order to attain the money on offer, each state will have to drum up a considerable chunk of dollars from the state budget in order to close the gap on construction costs, not to mention the annual bill that it takes to actually keep the trains running.

Amidst an economic climate in which everyone is facing deep cuts, it’s understandable for states to bristle at the prospect of adding long-term expenditures to the annual budget. Ohio Governor John Kasich has spoken out against the rail project, (which is expected to cost about $17 million per year to operate), declaring “That train is dead. I said it during the campaign. It is dead. Passenger rail is not in Ohio’s future.”

This sentiment has been echoed in the Wisconsin and Florida statehouses as well, with the primary complaint being the high cost of matching the giant wad of cash that the federal government has broken out as a carrot to incentivize state government action.

The logic behind the Obama administration’s requirement that states foot at least some of the railroad bill is rooted in the idea that one values an object more when they pay for at least some of its costs.¬† While this argument is consistently accepted when dealing with road construction, it simply hasn’t generated as much political juice when applied to trains.

The debate over funding for high-speed rail is an example of people not seeing, or refusing to recognize the larger picture. It’s hard to justify this duplicitous nature, as roads are unending money sinkholes in their own right. It costs a train conductor’s ransom to cover the money lost in traffic congestion and road repair, even while accounting for tolls and other sources of revenue. And that’s not to mention that it’s technically impossible to alleviate traffic by adding more lanes.

As far as high-speed rail’s economic productivity is concerned, one must consider the cost related to both the interstate highway system, as well as the short-haul airplane flights that far outstrip the automobile’s gas consumption. But that isn’t true.

Here’s an excerpt from argument against rail construction in Wisconsin:

“In Wisconsin, for example, a round-trip fare between Madison and Milwaukee would cost roughly $50 per person, even though the cities are less than 80 miles apart along Interstate 94. With a round trip between the two cities by automobile requiring only about six gallons of gasoline, depending on vehicle type, a high-speed rail ticket would cost a solo traveler at least twice as much as what the traveler would pay in gasoline driving between the two cities.” (link)

While the price for rail tickets may be correct, this argument circumvents the “wear and tear” issue almost entirely. Sure, a $50 ticket gets a passenger from point A to point B, but it also includes the cost of maintenance. The aforementioned 80 mile car trip doesn’t factor in any of the indirect wear and wear costs that are incurred both on the highway, but also the car itself. If we choose to go by the IRS’ valuation for wear and tear on automobiles, an 80 mile drive incurs somewhere between $11 and $40 of wear and tear. So a businessman who makes an 80 mile drive in a car that gets about 20 miles to the gallon is likely accruing $52 worth of costs in order to make the same trip that he could have made for $50. And that’s not even factoring in the costs of tolls and parking.

Instead, the issue comes from the fact that it’s hard to view these rails and roads as equal commodities. For one, People like driving their own cars. They are, in many ways, mobile homes. The average American spends an eighth of their lifetime either behind the wheel, or in the passenger seat. When you spend that much time anywhere, it’s understandable for one to grow attached to it. After all, it’s fun to roll down the windows, turn up the volume on the radio, and floor it down the open highway.

But that, like many past times, are little more than a fantasy. Most Americans aren’t cruising down the highway, but harnessed by long lines of gridlocked traffic. It’s an amalgamation of that guy who buys a sports car, only to spend most of his time cruising through 35 miles an hour residential streets.

Additionally, cars are bad for you. 33,000 people died in car crashes last year, and countless more are dying a slow death due to 3 hours a day of sitting in a car seat.

The rejection of high-speed rail funding is also a result of ignoring industry trends. Statistics show that more people are riding the train than ever before. Additionally, it’s not like rejecting the funding means that the money is going back to U.S. citizens, or likely even the federal government. Numerous states have moved in to snatch up the cash that Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin have so quickly rejected. Maryland, one of the states who has some in to pick over the leftovers, is sandwiched in a stretch of some of the highest traffic density in the western world. A fleshed out rail system across the Mid-Atlantic would help to provide a sample of what a developed high-speed rail system can provide to a region.

There’s plenty to like about a high-speed rail system. A 200 mph train ride is far faster than a car, and the prospect of circumventing the slow and degrading search methods employed at airports make it a viable alternative. Critics can point to the high initial and maintenance costs, but it’s not as if roads are cheap by any means. So opponents of a high-speed rail system can cite the high cost amidst a crummy economic period, but any other argument made is rooted in delusional, misinformed bias.

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