Friday, January 9, 2009

HSR Seen Reviving Industry, Improving Trade Balance

In a critique of President-elect Barack Obama's economic plans published today in The New Republic, John B. Judis makes the case for investment in high-speed rail.

One area that is ripe for such investment--and that is not, from what I have seen, a declared priority of the Obama administration--is high-speed rail. Amtrak's Acela trains--the closest thing we have to one--average less than 100 mph between Washington D.C. and Boston, whereas trains in Western Europe and Japan go more than twice as fast. Many of them also run on electricity. They would be the most energy-efficient and quickest means of getting between places like Boston and New York, or Los Angeles and San Francisco. But they would require a massive investment. For instance, installing high-speed rail in the Northeast corridor could cost about $32 billion, while California's high-speed rail system would require up to $40 billion. A system that would address the other areas of the country could easily raise the cost to the hundreds of billions. The House transportation and infrastructure committee has currently proposed $5 billion in stimulus funds for intercity rail--not even a down payment on what it would cost to convert the U.S. to high-speed rail.

Investing in high-speed rails would be very expensive, but unlike tax cuts--the benefits of which can be siphoned off in the purchase of imported goods--the money spent would go directly to reviving American industry and improving the country's trade balance. That doesn't just mean jobs creating dedicated tracks or new rail stations: Though the U.S. abandoned train manufacturing decades ago to the French, Germans, Canadians, and Japanese, this kind of production could be undertaken by our ailing auto companies or aircraft companies--if the federal and state governments were to place orders. And building trains that would run on electricity would be a paradigmatic example of the "green jobs" that Obama often touts.

Though a massive investment in high-speed rail brings its own set of complications, it's worth keeping these kind of examples in mind when one hears from the Obama people that they can't find sufficient infrastructure projects to fund. The question I would pose is this: Are we not at some point going to have to go beyond repairing roads and bridges in our conception of public spending and public works, and contemplate the kind of ambitious industrial expenditures that the country made on war production in 1941?

While Mr. Judis take a broader look at the Obama economic plan, his points about where to spend infrastructure funds are right on target. One of the reasons there has been a huge shortfall in infrastructure investment, particularly with respect to highways, is because we, as a nation, have overbuilt our highway infrastructure to the point where we cannot support it.

The same thing happened to our rail infrastructure, as anyone who remember the Penn Central and Rock Island railroads in the 1970s can attest. The railroads rationalized their problem through mergers and abandonments, but who ever heard of a state abandoning a highway.

So, if we try to bring the entire highway infrastructure back to a state of good repair, we will be throwing a lot of good money after bad. On the other hand, creating rail lines that could take some pressure off the highways, would yield better returns, reduce our carbon footprint and encourage sustainable development instead of sprawl.

No comments:

Post a Comment