There are a number of arguments against investing in high-speed rail in the United States. Trains will require subsidies by the government; not enough people will use them; passengers prefer to use cars between cities because it’s more convenient and so forth. Whatever merit these arguments have, they fail to take into account the long view. People may not use trains as much when gas is at $3 a gallon, but by the time we have any significant high speed rail laid down in the United States, gas may be much more expensive.
Furthermore, the only reason driving is cheap and convenient is because fossil fuels are heavily subsidized by the government, and roads – for the most part – are public and funded by tax dollars (not to mention our public investment in auto manufacturing). Since we subsidize transportation already, why not subsidize rail? Trains are safer, greener, and provide both freight and passenger options for a future American economy less reliant on oil. Whatever we lack in support infrastructure will come in time. And yes, it will be expensive, but so was the interstate system which cost in today’s dollars approximately $429 billion – quite a lot more than the $8 billion included in stimulus funds.
Along these lines, this piece in Miller-McCune is very good:
Perhaps passenger rail will have to be subsidized by the government, not unlike our Social Security, NASA, thousands of libraries and fire departments and all our roads and airports. This hardly elicits cries of nanny-state socialism in Europe, where government-run, comprehensive health care has been in place for decades, but in America it has become a call to arms for libertarians and “fiscal conservatives” who insist that high-speed rail must pay for itself, while ignoring the massive subsidies received by the auto and airline industries.[…]
Aviation not only receives billions for basics like Federal Aviation Administration operations, airline security, noise mitigation funds for homeowners, and air service to small communities, but airports themselves benefit from tax-free financing on everything from cargo buildings to retail stores — not to mention that the FAA covers 75 to 95 percent of airport planning and development costs in outright grants.
Still more curious is why anti-rail critics don’t concede the fact that our nation’s highways are subsidized with every gallon of gasoline we buy, yet — despite conventional wisdom to the contrary — they rarely pay for themselves. (The federal gas tax has remained at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates that will produce more than $40 billion in highway construction and maintenance funds — the Highway Account, part of the Highway Trust Fund – annually through 2011.) How can they fail to have noticed a much-publicized, man-bites-dog study in 2008 from the car-loving Texas Department of Transportation that boldly stated: “There is not one road in Texas that pays for itself based on the tax system of today. Some roads pay for about half their true cost, but most roads … pay for considerably less.”
I think we need to get ahead of the curve on this. Gas won’t always be cheap. Roads will only get more expensive to maintain. As our roads become more crowded, the public health costs and environmental costs will climb higher. Fuel efficient or electric cars won’t change the fact that most transportation fatalities are automobile related. Rail offers one sensible solution to many of these problems. And not just passenger rail – increased capacity for freight rail is just as important. Furthermore, as far as I’m concerned the very best way to use stimulus funds is on infrastructure – not just the roads and bridges we have now, but the infrastructure of the future as well. Why not take a man-on-the-moon approach to this? Our current levels of funding are woefully inadequate.
High Speed Rail is not only really cool – something supporters should certainly capitalize on – it’s also an extension of the greatness of America’s rail history. The railroad was a huge driver in our emerging economy, connecting a vast geographical distance and allowing commerce to flourish. High-speed rail will be a driving force in our future economy, and a necessary component of that economy. Unless, of course, it turns out that we actually do have an infinite supply of oil.