Tag Archives: Tokyo

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.

Local control over transportation: good in principle but not being practiced

State and local governments know their transportation needs better than Washington D.C. But that doesn’t mean that state and local governments are necessarily more efficient or less prone to public choice problems when it comes to funding projects, and some of that is due to the intertwined funding streams that make up a transportation budget.

Emily Goff at The Heritage Foundation finds two such examples in the recent transportation bills passed in Virginia and Maryland.

Both Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley propose raising taxes to fund new transit projects. In Virginia the state will eliminate the gas tax and replace it with an increase in the sales tax. This is a move away from a user-based tax to a more general source of taxation, severing the connection between those who use the roads and those who pay. The gas tax is related to road use; sales taxes are barely related. There is a much greater chance of political diversion of sales tax revenues to subsidized transit projects: trolleys, trains and bike paths, rather than using revenues for road improvements.

Maryland reduces the gas tax by five cents to 18.5 cents per gallon and imposes a new wholesale tax on motor fuels.

How’s the money being spent? In Virginia 42 percent of the new sales tax revenues will go to mass transit with the rest going to highway maintenance. As Goff notes this means lower -income southwestern Virginians will subsidize transit for affluent northern Virginians every time they make a nonfood purchase.

As an example, consider Arlington’s $1 million dollar bus stop. Arlingtonians chipped in $200,000 and the rest came from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). It’s likely with a move to the sales tax, we’ll see more of this. And indeed, according to Arlington Now, there’s a plan for 24 more bus stops to compliment the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar, a light rail project that is the subject of a lively local debate.

Revenue diversions to big-ticket transit projects are also incentivized by the states trying to come up with enough money to secure federal grants for Metrorail extensions (Virginia’s Silver Line to Dulles Airport and Maryland’s Purple Line to New Carrolton).

Truly modernizing and improving roads and mass transit could be better achieved by following a few principles.

  • First, phase out federal transit grants which encourage states to pursue politically-influenced and costly projects that don’t always address commuters’ needs. (See the rapid bus versus light rail debate).
  • Secondly, Virginia and Maryland should move their revenue system back towards user-fees for road improvements. This is increasingly possible with technology and a Vehicle Miles Tax (VMT), which the GAO finds is “more equitable and efficient” than the gas tax.
  • And lastly, improve transit funding. One way this can be done is through increasing farebox recovery rates. The idea is to get transit fares in line with the rest of the world.

Interestingly, Paris, Madrid, and Tokyo have built rail systems at a fraction of the cost of heavily-subsidized projects in New York, Boston, and San Francisco. Stephen Smith, writing at Bloomberg, highlights that a big part of the problem in the U.S. are antiquated procurement laws that limit bidders on transit projects and push up costs. These legal restrictions amount to real money. French rail operator SNCF estimated it could cut $30 billion off of the proposed $68 billion California light rail project. California rejected the offer and is sticking with the pricier lead contractor.

 

 

 

 

Cities, Take Note from Tokyo.

Japanese 7-11On Tuesday, 7-11 stores in Tokyo began offering various services that were previously only available through municipal governments, the Japan Times reports. Residents of the city and surrounding areas can now obtain residence certificates and registered seal certificates from the chain stores.

Customers will be able to insert their resident registry network cards into a new terminal for identification and get a printout of the document they need. The fee will be ¥200 to ¥250 for each copy.

Printouts are forgery-proof to make sure personal data are not falsified, Seven-Eleven said, adding the terminal network has advanced security features to protect personal information.

This new development appears as if it will benefit both the company by attracting more traffic into 7-11 stores and the municipality by reducing its paperwork and customer service burdens. Furthermore, customers will be better served by having convenient locations where they can get these documents.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., localities are cutting funding to schools, police, and transit. These are services that citizens value, pay taxes for, and expect through their contractual position as taxpayers.

Cutting positions such as teachers and police officers will immediately affect citizens. Contrarily, Tokyo’s innovation has allowed the city to permanently reduce its government service obligations with no loss to residents.

American cities should take note from innovative urban solutions around the world. In order to find lasting fiscal stability, cities should look for creative new ways to meet their citizens needs rather than seeking to maximize their revenues during times of prosperity and creating bloated budgets as a result.

NYC’s Metropolitan Transit Authority: The Customer Is Always Last

Toy MTA TrainNew York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority is broke. Back in May, Governor Paterson approved $2.1 billion in tax hikes to plug the authority’s $383 million hole, including, as the Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas notes, an ill-advised payroll tax in the middle of a deep recession. Predictably, revenues fell short. On top of this, the Governor agreed to $91 million in pay increases for top MTA officials. The MTA’s hole is now $400 million.

As if to hammer home that the MTA exists to serve its employees rather than its customers, a judge ruled this week that the state must pay the Transit Workers Union an 11 percent pay increase over the next few years.

The result: MTA will cut off service on the W and Z lines, reduce service on the G and M lines, and shrink 49 bus routes. Riders are guaranteed longer wait times, and cars will be packed. An MTA board member calls it “a failure of government.”

For some policy ideas, the MTA might review its history. Initially, NYC’s buses and and train services were private. Between 1932 and 1953, the city and the state acquired New York City’s transit systems. And since that time it has experienced frequent financial crises. In spite of years of subsidies, transit prices continue to rise. As Wendell Cox writes, New York transit remains immune to competitive pressure and instead relies on the deep pockets of taxpayers. By contrast, the Tokyo and Hong Kong transit systems get most of their revenues from rider fares.

While privatizing is a near-impossibility, Cox notes that competitive contracting might go a long way to lowering MTA’s runaway spending. The Transport for London bus system took this route and reduced costs per mile by 40 percent.

Summer Games: The New Economic Stimulus?

The Chicago Tribune reports that Mayor Daley and the City Council have given unanimous support to fund any expense overruns should Chicago win its bid to host the 2016 Olympic games. This decision gives the city a fighting chance to be selected to host the games, keeping it in the running with Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, and Tokyo, all of which have secured similar financial guarantees.

Afterward, aldermen and Mayor Richard Daley gave themselves a standing ovation. The vote reauthorizes Daley to sign the Olympics host city contract in advance of the Oct. 2 vote in Copenhagen by the International Olympics Committee on which of four finalist cities gets the Summer Games in seven years.

This decision by the city’s leadership may not represent the desires of Chicago citizens who, a Tribune poll shows, have dwindling support for the city to host the games, largely because of concerns about taxpayer liability.

After the vote, many of the aldermen gave quotes to the press:

Ald. Ray Suarez (31st) said he initially “had some reservations.” But Suarez said he now feels the Olympics would bring jobs, housing and a new global reputation to Chicago.

“It will make Chicago a world-class city,” he said.

Of course, Chicago residents and leaders may have many reasons for wanting to host the 2016 Games, but it is uncertain that the event would be an economic boon to the city.  A study conducted to analyze the potential economic effects of the 2012 London Olympics found that historically while some host cities have benefited economically, others have suffered losses as tax dollars used to fund the games are not always recouped during the course of the event.

Adam Blake of the University of Nottingham Business School found that the event was likely to benefit London in 2012 and that increased growth is likely to last until 2016, but that in the years before and after this bracket the results are less certain.

Short-lived, costly events such as the Olympics often result in the construction of facilities that will have limited use after the games are over.  For example, the Bird’s Nest that became symbolic of the 2008 Beijing Olympics is today underutilized, making revenue today only from tourists who wish to see where the athletes competed.

A USA Today reporter speculates:

In other countries, the Bird’s Nest might be revealed as a white elephant — an expensive possession with little commercial value. But in China, the government and state-controlled media are unlikely to advertise the fact and citizens will never know the real cost.

Ex ante, we do not know if the 2016 games would benefit or harm Chicago in the long run, but looking to past cases gives reason to question whether or not host cities benefit in the long run.  Perhaps a more reliable policy to promote economic growth and tourism in the city would be to lower its notoriously high taxes. The Economist recently found that Chicago has the greatest tax burden for tourists of any American city.  The cities’ leadership would be wise to consider how this tax climate would impact potential visitors’ decisions to attend the games before speculating that increased tourism would certainly benefit residents.