Bobby Jindal flip-flops on high-speed rail

At Green Sheet... but this was really just an excuse to link to these outstanding videos (fans of 30 Rock will enjoy).

For those who are interested in the substance of the issue, ahem, highly-respected urban economist Ed Glaeser is skeptical, while former Economist blogger Ryan Avent is outraged at Glaeser's "unserious look." Personally, I can see it being really great in the Northeast Corridor (although who knows if it can make money - I don't think Amtrak can, and the Delta Shuttle is a highly efficient alternative for the Washington-NY-Boston pivot), and am skeptical that it would take off in car-based California, as Avent seems to imply. If you need to rent a car or hail a taxi at your destination, the economics for the traveler deteriorate pretty rapidly, especially because flights are, all things considered, pretty cheap.

Update: Via Environmental Capital, Robert Samuelson writes an op ed against in the WaPo, and Avent and Paul Krugman are all over him in microseconds. I agree with Avent that some of Samuelson's density arguments are facile (subject to The Flaw of Averages, you might say), but for all his vitriole I've yet to see him make a compelling case that the economics of U.S. high-speed rail would be attractive somewhere other than Washington to Boston.

Update 2: Tyler Cowen reviews another argument for high-speed rail and isn't swayed:
More generally, my jaw dropped when I read the denouement:
In this more comprehensive model that takes into account trivialities like regional population growth and a reality-based route, the annual benefits total $840 million compared with construction and maintenance costs of $810 million.
I'm not sure what discount rates he is using but even if we put that problem aside this screams out: don't do it. Given irreversible investment, lock-in effects, and required hurdle rates of return, this still falls into the "no" category. And that's an estimate from an advocate writing a polemic on behalf of the idea. I'm not even considering the likelihood of inflation on the cost side or the public choice problems with getting a good rather than a bad version of the project. How well has the Northeast corridor been run?

So, on high-speed rail, count me as still unconvinced. Nonetheless if you know of a good cost-benefit study, of a single rail link, not in the Northeast corridor, favoring HSR, let me know in the comments.
Update 3: Via Green Sheet, Nate Silver notes that Americans like to drive instead of flying, even when the choice is not "rational" from a financial perspective.
What does this mean for something high-speed trains? It could be either good news or bad news. If a people are driving more than they "should" because they don't like air travel, then trains could pick off quite a bit of that traffic. A "true" high-speed train from St. Louis to New York, traveling at 150 MPH, could make the journey in just under 6 hours, which is quite competitive with air travel once the additional door-to-door costs of air transit are considered (although there are some incumbent to rail travel too). And many of the hang-ups that people associate with air travel, indeed, aren't likely to transfer to rail. Train travel can often be quite comfortable, for instance, and acrophobes won't have to worry about being suspended 30,000 feet above the ground in a flying cigar box. On the other hand, if people are attached to driving for "irrational" reasons -- they find it romantic or improperly evaluate expenses like depreciation -- rail travel might not make much of a dent.


  1. I feel about high speed rail about how I feel with most of the big transit projects in the country: they fail robust cost-benefit analysis miserably, but in the context of all of the other things government spends money on, it's sometimes still okay to support them.

    There are a lot of positive externalities from transit projects as well - witness the disproportionate attention paid to the "quality" of airport terminals. Some airport terminals have terrible logistics, and others have good logistics, but I still think that we're mostly judging on aesthetics. By the same token, cities, regions, and countries are judged based on things like the quality of their rail lines.

    What's more sad is that better transit projects aren't considered. There are so many low-hanging fruits in the transit world compared to the attention-getting money-hogging projects. Even aside from using price signals, there are lots of better projects. Sometimes we just need to synchronize the street lights...

    And of course as usual, buses get no love :(.

  2. Is optimizing traffic lights a computationally hard problem, or are the barriers to improving traffic flow even lower than that?

  3. Also, Richard Green is a professor I follow (he covers real estate and transportation, what's not to love). I thought this comment on high speed rail was very interesting.

    High speed rail also seems to me to be a way to redistribute income from lower income Americans to higher income Americans, because lower-income Americans will choose Southwest Airlines (which will be cheaper) when they need to travel from one city to another.

  4. I wish I were a better documenter of links...

    It's computationally hard, but nothing a bunch of smart transportation analysts, a comprehensive Origin-Destination survey, and some powerful computers can't handle.

    Some cities already have their traffic lights linked centrally, others could do so at a significant but not major cost.

    Biggest barrier is doing the O-D survey...

    I wish I had saved the link of the study showing you could actually turn certain roads in Boston into parks and make a near-pareto improvement to speeds in the whole city system.

  5. I think this debate parallels reduction in energy use. There are solutions to both problems that each face one of three obstacles:

    a) very expensive (solar power, high speed rail)
    b) politically unpopular (gas tax, congestion tax)
    c) Cost effective but doesn't meet psychological bar for personal/political action (better insulation, buses)

    I can draw more parallels. Betting on energy trends is relatively easy and obvious. You might think transportation is much harder to bet on (there's rail stocks, etc, but not the same), but for me betting on transportation is real estate.