Finance

Not-So-High-Speed Rail

One of the most expensive flops in television history was "Supertrain", a show about a 200-mile-per-hour, nuclear-powered locomotive -- a landlocked "Love Boat" with celebrity...
by | April 19, 2009

One of the most expensive flops in television history was "Supertrain", a show about a 200-mile-per-hour, nuclear-powered locomotive -- a landlocked "Love Boat" with celebrity guest passengers, fancy special effects and elaborate sets, including a disco worthy of the program's snappy theme song. NBC aired only nine episodes back in 1979, far from enough to land "Supertrain" in rerun heaven. But at least in the world of slow-moving public policy, the show has been in continuous syndication.

Since Japan's first Shinkansen "bullet train" debuted 45 years ago, U.S. officials, advisory panels and even some private ventures have tried to get high-speed rail lines rolling in this country. With the exception of Amtrak's Acela Express, which has run at top speeds of 150 mph between Boston and Washington for nearly a decade, all those efforts have taken the same brief one-way trip to cancellation as NBC's fictional train.

Now Washington is trying again. President Obama wants to make $5 billion in grants in the next five years on top of the $8 billion for new, faster railroads provided by this year's economic stimulus package. Some of the stimulus funding made good on $1.5 billion in grants authorized in last year's Amtrak law, which also approved some Transportation Department money to encourage commercial enterprises to get into the act. (See Obama's statement on April 16, when he unveiled a strategic plan for high-speed rail.)

Does all that budgeting and legislating mean conductors will soon be welcoming American passengers aboard glitzy new levitating passenger cars, ready to zip them across magnetic tracks at hundreds of miles per hour? Not so fast.

The new administration's initial focus will be on incremental service improvements, such as track upgrades that will allow conventional trains to get from here to there faster -- a safe bet with more immediate prospects for creating jobs. (My GOVERNING magazine colleagues Alex Marshall and Josh Goodman both wrote about this approach before last week's announcement.)

Bolder investments in genuinely advanced service are still on the table, with detailed plans expected later this year. But an in-depth analysis issued last month by the Government Accountability Office raises questions that might be daunting enough to send even the most vocal high-speed rail advocates to the "quiet car" to think. (PDF: full GAO report). Even with all the recent 10-figure authorizations and appropriations, the biggest obstacles to the fastest rail options still seem to be the same ones that derailed many past efforts: politics and economics.

The political questions are obvious enough. Super-fast trains are big-ticket, long-term projects that will require sustained support through many administrations and legislative regimes -- and not just at the federal level. States and localities will have significant responsibility and authority, too, which is why the stimulus law gave those governments new flexibility to borrow for rail projects that aim to move passengers at 150 mph or faster. Cooperation across jurisdictional lines will be key, especially in places that will need extended rights of way to build dedicated new tracks. That could be politically tricky in some of the most congested areas, where potential demand for faster rail service might justify the investment.

The investment is itself a significant challenge. As the president put it when he unveiled his high-speed rail plan last week, the $13 billion already requested amounts only to a "down payment." Whether that down payment pays off hinges in part on demand -- a notoriously elusive metric, the GAO notes, since estimated ridership depends on such unpredictable factors as energy costs, ticket prices, convenience and reliability. Cost overruns also can throw off the math.

Even if the demand is there, the capital may not be. The money for high-speed rail is coming from general funds, making it subject to continuous jostling with other budgetary priorities. The GAO cautions that private investors might be reluctant to shovel in cash without a dependable source of sustained public funding.

Given the challenges, how do Asian and European countries pay for their high-speed trains? The GAO found that fast rail systems in France, Spain and Japan are generating sufficient passenger revenue to cover ongoing expenses but not the cost of building the systems in the first place -- an expense officials in those countries justify for environmental or other societal reasons. "In the countries we visited, the central government generally funds the majority of up-front costs . . . without the expectation that their investment will be recouped through ticket revenues," the agency's report said.

It's not that European and Asian countries are more willing to subsidize big transportation initiatives than the United States is. It's that U.S. subsidies tend to favor other modes of transportation, particularly roads paid for with taxpayer money -- much of it in the form of government borrowing -- and air travel, a consistently profit-challenged business that depends heavily on public infrastructure, services and tax breaks.

If all the train talk in Washington signals a real change in policy, especially in terms of political and financial expectations, Supertrain might in fact be ready to roll. All aboard?

The column is adapted from Mark Stencel's "Futurist" column from the April 20, 2009 issue of CQ Weekly.

Mark Stencel
Mark Stencel  |  Former Editor
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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