Tag Archives: Spain

High-speed rail: is this year different?

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.

A government that hands out privileges can expect corruption

According to the Washington Post, the mafia is heavily involved in Italy’s renewable energy market. This is not particularly surprising given that firms in that market compete on a manifestly uneven playing field.

The Godfather Movie in TextIn a market characterized by a genuinely level playing field—one in which no firm or industry benefits from government-granted privilege—the only way to profit is to offer something of value to customers. If you fail to create value for voluntarily paying customers, they won’t volunteer their money. It’s that simple.

But things are different when the playing field can be tilted through government-granted privileges. This is because when the playing field can be tilted, firms have an incentive to find some way to persuade the government to tilt it their way. And the most persuasive techniques aren’t always above board.

The problem is that objective standards for playing favorites are hard to come by. This can corrupt even well-intentioned programs that privilege particular behavior in the name of serving the general good.

Imagine you are a politician and you want to reward firms that specialize in renewable energy. How do you determine who makes the cut? What if you want to reward companies that securitize mortgages for low-income households. How do you decide whom to reward? Or say you want to bailout “systemically important” banks. Where do you draw the line between systemically important and systemically unimportant?

Without objective guideposts, subjective factors loom large: whom do you interact with the most? Whom have you known the longest? Which firms share your ideological perspective? Which are headquartered in your hometown?

Even the most well-intentioned of politicians are susceptible to these considerations because all humans are susceptible to these considerations. That’s why a slew of research has found government-granted privileges are often associated with corruption. For example, in an examination of 450 firms in 35 countries, economists Mara Faccio, Ronald Masulis, and John McConnell found that politically connected firms are more likely to be bailed out than non-connected firms. It’s possible that more deserving firms just happen to be politically connected, but this strains credulity. A more plausible explanation is that in the absence of an objective standard for dispensing privileges, politicians reward those they know.

And when that is the case, firms make it their business to get to know politicians. Just ask Angelo Mozilo, the politically ensconced former head of Countrywide Financial. Countrywide supplied the loans that were repackaged by the federally backed Fannie Mae. And since Countrywide’s business model depended on the favor of politicians, Mozilo made sure he was in good standing with his benefactors. Under a program known internally as the “Friends of Angelo” program, Countrywide offered favorable mortgage financing to the likes of Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad.

The conventional route to profit is to please one’s customers. But when firms are able to profit by pleasing politicians, they will do whatever it takes to please politicians. Which brings us back to Italy and renewables. The current investigation (known as operation Eolo after the Greek god of wind) first bore fruit in 2010 when eight people were arrested for bribing officials with cash and luxury cars. Armed with more evidence, officials have now arrested another dozen crime bosses.

It is good, of course, to have police who investigate these matters. But a far simpler, equitable, and efficient solution is to create a truly level playing field for business. When politicians cannot tilt the playing field in favor of particular firms or industries, businesses have nothing to gain from bribery and connections.

Put away the honey jar and you won’t have an ant problem.

Where is the coercion in land use?

On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal published an article about Denver’s light rail expansion plan. Two Cato analysts came down on different sides of the issue. Randall O’Toole, writing at Cato-at-Liberty, says that the expansion is a waste of money. He writes:

Under RTD’s latest “rethink,” transit will no longer take people from where they are to where they want to go. Instead, planners will try to coerce and entice people to live in places served by rail transit and go where those rail lines go.

The expansion comes with a steep $7.4 billion price tag, and O’Toole is likely correct that this is too much to spend; light rails across the country lose money, and the 122-mile above-ground expansion has experienced a cost overrun from $4.7 billion in 2004. The United States is notorious for unreasonably high transit construction costs compared to other countries. Additionally, the light rail is an airport connector, an often poor use of tax dollars, particularly when the airport is located far from downtown, as in Denver.

However, O’Toole’s judgment that the new plan amounts to coercion seems to be based not primarily on the light rail’s cost, but rather on zoning rules that will distinguish the new light rail stations from some of Denver’s existing light rail stations. The land around the new stations will not be dedicated to government-owned parking lots; instead developers will have the freedom to put housing or commercial uses adjacent to the stations with parking garages as far away as 1000 feet.

Timothy Lee, a Cato adjunct scholar writes at Forbes:

If the plan is to dump government-owned parking garages and instead sell the land to private developers, that’s a clear win from a free-market perspective. And if planners liberalize zoning rules to allow high-density construction that’s illegal in most suburbs, so much the better. On the other hand, if the plan is to actively subsidize or even require dense development, that is worth criticizing. But it’s important to be clear that the problem is coercive means, not the goal of providing more walkable neighborhoods.

Lee makes a key point here. The suburban style development that we see in many parts of Denver is not the free market at work, as O’Toole assumes. Rather, more dense, urban development is outlawed in many parts of Denver and cities across the country. Both O’Toole and Lee make some good points on the plan, but if a city is going to spend too much on transit, that doesn’t mean the transit should be strangled with liberty-limiting suburban zoning laws.

Behold the Savage Austerity

If you are a journalist or a commentator and you have ever uttered or written the word “austerity,” I hope you spend some time with this chart:

Vero offers some excellent comments here:

These countries still spend more than pre-recession levels

France and the U.K. did not cut spending.

In Greece, and Spain, when spending was actually reduced — between 2009–2011 — the cuts have been relatively small compared to the size of bloated European budgets. Also, meaningful structural reforms were seldom implemented.

As for Italy, the country reduced spending between 2009 and 2010 but the data shows [an] uptick in spending 2011. The increase in spending represents more than the previous reduction.

Is California’s Debt a Greek Tragedy?

James Surowiekci writing at The New Yorker considers whether there is good reason to think California’s fiscal plight puts it on course for a Greek-style collapse. Greece is not the only EU nation in trouble. Add in Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain to the massive debt club (a.k.a the PIIGS), with debt levels at 60% of GDP in 2008-2009. By contrast the most fiscally troubled states of California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois had debt-to-GDP ratios of 15% during the same period.

Surowiecki suggests this may be reason to breathe a little easier. The biggest debtor nations in the EU owe three times as much relative to GDP as do their high-debt counterparts in the US. Plus, the states can count on a federal bailout.

Yet, neither of these thoughts are entirely comforting.

First, states have underestimated their pension obligations by threefold. Official reports estimate New Jersey’s unfunded pension obligations at $45 billion. Using more reasonable discount rates to estimate New Jersey’s pension obligation reveals an unfunded liability of $137.9 billion, or 261% of total state debt. That’s before adding in Other Post-Retirement Benefits (OPEB) and health care for public sector workers.

Secondly, a half century of  intergovernmental infusions from D.C. in the form of transfers,Medicaid, and stabilization money hasn’t kept the states afloat. Quite the contrary the erosion of fiscal federalism has meant a loss of states’ control over spending and policy.

The FY 2009 stimulus has been as effective as a shot of morphine. States have now spent their education money to expand spending and avoid cuts. Fast forward to FY 2010. Revenues haven’t recovered. Pension obligations loom larger and those “saved and created” jobs are now in search of funds.

Factor in the growth in Social Security, Medicare, health care spending, and annual deficits projected to average $1 trillion over the next  decade and America 2030 looks alot worse than Greece 2010.

Homeowners and the Great Recession

Writing at Forbes.com, Joel Kotkin weighs in on the claim that homeownership caused the Great Recession:

Increasingly, conventional wisdom places the fundamental blame for the worldwide downturn on people’s desire–particularly in places like the U.K., the U.S. and Spain–to own their own home. Acceptance of the long-term serfdom of renting, the logic increasingly goes, could help restore order and the rightful balance of nature.

Once considered sacrosanct by conservatives and social democrats alike, homeownership is increasingly seen as a form of economic derangement. The critics of the small owner include economists like Paul Krugman and Ed Glaeser, who identify the over-hot pursuit of homes as one critical cause for the recession. Others suggest it would be perhaps nobler to put money into something more consequential, like stocks.

Much of Kotkin’s piece is devoted to the implications for the future:

Rather than a source of economic weakness, this renewed quest for homeownership could underpin a sustainable recovery. As prices fall to reasonable levels, more people will qualify for reasonable loans. First, the empty houses and somewhat later, the condominiums now on the market will find buyers, in most places in a matter of a few years.

This shift will create huge opportunities for a diverse set of geographies. For urban areas like New York or Los Angeles, there will be a unique–perhaps once in a generation–chance to induce middle-class people to settle down in big-city homes or condominiums. If they become homeowners, they will be more likely to stay than move elsewhere to the suburbs or other regions when the time comes to buy a home.

Other, more affordable, less regulated and often more economically dynamic places like Texas and the Great Plains may realize even greater gains. Over time, we will likely see a recovery in some now-suffering parts of the Sunbelt. The renewal of home demand could also help revitalize many of our hardest-hit sectors, including construction and manufacturing.

Additionally, Economic Recovery Digest points to new research about homeowners who can afford to pay mortgages but choose not to; the research suggests that a quarter of defaults could be “strategic.”