High-speed rail in Missouri is snapshot of government delusions

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Did you know that the building of a high-speed rail line across central Missouri will support more than 200,000 jobs, or roughly 800 jobs for every mile of track? That is right, more than 200,000 jobs. Don't believe me? Well, it is right there on page 21 of the Missouri Department of Transportation's (MoDOT) application for $600 million in high-speed rail federal funding for the planning and engineering phase of what eventually will be an $8 billion project: "The construction phase is estimated to support over 208,674 direct, indirect, and induced jobs."

If you think it is ludicrous that the construction of a single rail line across central Missouri could account for 7 percent of the state's entire labor force, well, you are correct. But absurd estimates like this are typical for high-speed rail proposals. In 2008, California voters approved bonds to support a high-speed rail proposal that was estimated to cost $43 billion. Now, before any construction has started, the cost is estimated at $98 billion. Seriously, though, what is $55 billion when you are talking about the ability to ride a fast train?

But back to MoDOT. In their defense (although this hardly qualifies as a "defense"), MoDOT officials did not put much original thought into the 208,000 jobs projection. They just applied a federal transportation department formula to the estimated $8 billion cost of the project and came out with that figure. Never mind that the formula counts the same job multiple times, assumes that every job in transportation "induces" two jobs elsewhere, and has been thoroughly discredited. What matters is that the number sounds great.

There are other outlandish claims in the same document. On page 10, we learn that Missourians will use high-speed rail to commute to work. Even though the new system will just go 110 mph at its peak (not dramatically faster than the current system); will only stop in St. Louis, Kansas City and perhaps Jefferson City; and a trip across the state will still take 4 hours at best, Missourians will apparently use it to commute to work each day. On page 21, we get a detailed account of the supposed environmental benefits of high-speed rail, but absolutely no consideration to the environmental harms of an unnecessary $8 billion construction project. This is an example of government seeing all benefits and no costs.

The proposed high-speed rail line will connect Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City, and likely the two state capitals in between. Other than people who are terrified to fly, please find me someone in Kansas City who is going to take high-speed rail to Chicago -- which will still take about eight hours -- when they can fly there on Southwest Airlines for approximately the same price in one hour and 20 minutes?

Megabus and similar companies are perfectly capable of serving existing intercity travel needs without public tax dollars. Megabus will take you from Saint Louis to Kansas City in four and a half hours, for $34 (often less via promotions). That $34 is less than Amtrak is likely to charge for high-speed rail service, and exists now without spending $8 billion on construction and millions more each year on subsidies. If your mission is to ensure people have safe and affordable travel options, mission accomplished. If your true mission is to spend government money in pursuit of political aims, I guess it isn't.

High-speed rail is a high-cost luxury built to serve a demand that does not exist. Like many other large transit projects, the price for it is so high that advocates can only generate support by intentionally underestimating the cost and downplaying the future subsidies. California officials deserve credit for their more honest cost revision of $98 billion, but they are still claiming that high-speed rail will not require a subsidy once it is operating. The large majority of high-speed rail systems around the world require a subsidy, and California will not be any different. The few systems that do break even connect some of the most heavily-populated parts of the world. Considering that California is intentionally starting its system by connecting Fresno and Bakersfield -- some of the less-populated parts of the state -- the assertion that it will break even is dizzying.

Missouri would be much better off sticking with its original plan to spend far less money making smart, engineering-based upgrades to our current passenger rail system. The market demand for high-speed rail is a myth. The private sector is perfectly capable of providing affordable and safe intercity travel via busses. The number of jobs high-speed rail creates is false and misleading. St. Louis and Kansas City are not Tokyo or New York, and the $8 billion project would require enormous annual operating subsidies in the future. This proposal is a high-speed path to fiscal disaster.

David Stokes is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri Public Policy.

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