Many U.S. cities are racing to develop high speed rail systems that shorten commute times and develop the economy for residents. These trains are able to reach speeds over 124 mph, sometimes even as high as 374 mph as in the case of Japan’s record-breaking trains. Despite this potential, American cities haven’t quite had the success of other countries. In 2009, the Obama administration awarded almost a billion dollars of stimulus money to Wisconsin to build a high-speed rail line connection between Milwaukee and Madison, and possibly to the Twin Cities, but that project was derailed. Now, the Trump administration has plans to support a high-speed rail project in Texas. Given so many failed attempts in the U.S., it’s fair to ask if this time is different. And if it is, will high-speed rail bring the benefits that proponents claim it to have?
The argument for building high-speed rail lines usually entails promises of faster trips, better connections between major cities, and economic growth as a result. It almost seems like a no-brainer – why would any city not want to pursue something like this? The answer, like with most public policy questions, depends on the costs, and whether the benefits actually realize.
In a forthcoming paper for the Mercatus Center, transportation scholar Kenneth Button explores these questions by studying the high-speed rail experiences of Spain, Japan, and China; the countries with the three largest systems (measured by network length). Although there are benefits to these rail systems, Button cautions against focusing too narrowly on them as models, primarily because what works in one area can’t necessarily be easily replicated in another.
Most major systems in other countries have been the result of large public investment and built with each area’s unique geography and political environment kept in mind. Taking their approaches and trying to apply them to American cities not only ignores how these factors can differ, but also how much costs can differ. For example, the average infrastructure unit price of high-speed rail in Europe is between $17 and $24 million per mile and the estimated cost for proposals in California is conservatively estimated at $35 million per mile.
The cost side of the equation is often overlooked, and more attention is given to the benefit side. Button explains that the main potential benefit – generating economic growth – doesn’t always live up to expectations. The realized growth effects are usually minimal, and sometimes even negative. Despite this, proponents of high-speed rail oversell them. The process of thinking through high-speed rail as a sound public investment is often short-lived.
The goal is to generate new economic activity, not merely replace or divert it from elsewhere. In Japan, for example, only six percent of the traffic on the Sanyo Shinkansen line was newly generated, while 55 percent came from other rail lines, 23 percent from air, and 16 percent from inter-city bus. In China, after the Nanguang and Guiguang lines began operating in 2014, a World Bank survey found that many of the passengers would have made the journey along these commutes through some other form of transportation if the high-speed rail option wasn’t there. The passengers who chose this new transport method surely benefited from shorter travel times, but this should not be confused with net growth across the economy.
Even if diverted away from other transport modes, the amount of high-speed rail traffic Japan and China have generated is commendable. Spain’s system, however, has not been as successful. Its network has only generated about 5 percent of Japan’s passenger volume. A line between Perpignan, France and Figueres, Spain that began services in 2009 severely fell short of projected traffic. Originally, it was expected to run 19,000 trains per year, but has only reached 800 trains by 2015.
There is also evidence that high speed rail systems poorly re-distribute activity geographically. This is especially concerning given the fact that projects are often sold on a promise of promoting regional equity and reducing congestion in over-heating areas. You can plan a track between well-developed and less-developed regions, but this does not guarantee that growth for both will follow. The Shinkansen system delivers much of Japan’s workforce to Tokyo, for example, but does not spread much employment away from the capital. In fact, faster growth happened where it was already expected, even before the high-speed rail was planned or built. Additionally, the Tokyo-Osaka Shinkansan line in particular has strengthened the relative economic position of Tokyo and Osaka while weakening those of cities not served.
Passenger volume and line access are not – and should not be – the only metrics of success. Academics have exhibited a fair amount of skepticism regarding high-speed rail’s ability to meet other objectives. When it comes to investment value, many cases have resulted in much lower returns than expected. A recent, extreme example of this is California’s bullet train that is 50 percent over its planned budget; not to mention being seven years behind in its building schedule.
The project in California has been deemed a lost cause by many, but other projects have gained more momentum in the past year. North American High Speed Rail Group has proposed a rail line between Rochester and the Twin Cities, and if it gets approval from city officials, it plans to finance entirely with private money. The main drawback of the project is that it would require the use of eminent domain to take the property of existing businesses that are in the way of the planned line path. Private companies trying to use eminent domain to get past a roadblock like this often do so claiming that it is for the “public benefit.” Given that many residents have resisted the North American High Speed Rail Group’s plans, trying to force the use of eminent domain would likely only destroy value; reallocating property from a higher-value to a lower-value use.
Past Mercatus research has found that using eminent domain powers for redevelopment purposes – i.e. by taking from one private company and giving to another – can cause the tax base to shrink as a result of decreases in private investment. Or in other words, when entrepreneurs see that the projects that they invest in could easily be taken if another business owner makes the case to city officials, it would in turn discourage future investors from moving into the same area. This ironically discourages development and the government’s revenues suffer as a result.
Florida’s Brightline might have found a way around this. Instead of trying to take the property of other businesses and homes in its way, the company has raised money to re-purpose existing tracks already between Miami and West Palm Beach. If implemented successfully, this will be the first privately run and operated rail service launched in the U.S. in over 100 years. And it doesn’t require using eminent domain or the use of taxpayer dollars to jump-start that, like any investment, has risk of being a failure; factors that reduce the cost side of the equation from the public’s perspective.
Which brings us back to the Houston-to-Dallas line that Trump appears to be getting behind. How does that plan stack up to these other projects? For one, it would require eminent domain to take from rural landowners in order to build a line that would primarily benefit city residents. Federal intervention would require picking a winner and loser at the offset. Additionally, there is no guarantee that building of the line would bring about the economic development that many proponents promise. Button’s new paper suggests that it’s fair to be skeptical.
I’m not making the argument that high-speed rail in America should be abandoned altogether. Progress in Florida demonstrates that maybe in the right conditions and with the right timing, it could be cost-effective. The authors of a 2013 study echo this by writing:
“In the end, HSR’s effect on economic and urban development can be characterized as analogous to a fertilizer’s effect on crop growth: it is one ingredient that could stimulate economic growth, but other ingredients must be present.”
For cities that can’t seem to mix up the right ingredients, they can look to other options for reaching the same goals. In fact, a review of the economic literature finds that investing in road infrastructure is a much better investment than other transportation methods like airports, railways, or ports. Or like I’ve discussed previously, being more welcoming to new technologies like driver-less cars has the potential to both reduce congestion and generate significant economic gains.