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Real vs. phony investment in high speed rail

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Opinion Zone,Joshua Bowman

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure held a hearing this morning in an unusual venue: the main hall of Grand Central Terminal in New York City.  According to the press release, the hearing focused on the need for more private investment instead of government spending to upgrade the Northeast Corridor Acela trains for truly high speed instead of the current limit of 85 miles per hour.  The timing of the hearing provides a perfect contrast to President Obama's call during the State of the Union for "investment" in a nationwide rail network.

Unlike the majority of the country, the Northeast Corridor is densely populated.  The committee report mentions that, "The region is home to 18 percent of the nation's population living in just 2 percent of its land area." A pro-rail study called America 2050 shows that, in terms of propensity for rail ridership, this density translates to more than 10 million people riding some form of rail transit each day throughout the region.

The local blog BeyondDC has produced an excellent map showing the combined Amtrak, commuter rail, and rail transit lines for the region.  Immediately noticeable is that aside from two small sections—one in northeast Maryland and the other between New Haven and Providence—urban rail already covers almost the entire length of the Acela route.

Thus, most people in the Northeast region have easy access to the rail network close to their homes through a robust public transit network.  It stands to reason that, rather than having to drive a car to a downtown train station, people who ride a train to work every day are also more likely to take a train on longer trips.

Meanwhile, no other "mega-region" comes anywhere close to a similar level of daily ridership totals.  In the Midwest, only Chicago has the density to support a large number of daily rail transit users.  In California, Los Angeles and San Francisco have a large base of rail passengers, but the two cities are separated by more than 300 miles of mostly rural countryside.  Other major cities like Atlanta and Dallas have urban rail networks, but nothing approaching the scale of the Northeast Corridor.

Instead of wasting taxpayer dollars on Obama’s high speed rail boondoggle in places like Charlotte and Seattle where it makes little sense, today's committee meeting focused on the only rail corridor in the country that is actually profitable according to data from Amtrak.  Because of its profitability, the committee report suggests that the government should seek public-private partnerships to improve the Northeast Corridor.

However, why stop there?  Why not follow the lead of Japan and Britain where they have completely privatized some rail operations?  Instead of following down the path of ever-increasing debt and deficits that has spawned riots in Greece and Spain and bankrupted the governments of Iceland and Ireland, privatization of industry is something that we could actually learn from Europe.

If split off from government-run Amtrak, the Northeast Corridor could easily function as a private rail company without government assistance.  Instead of the President's phony "investment," i.e. government spending, a private company could raise capital for upgrades from real investors who could then expect a handsome profit at the end of the day.  Such a plan would not only create jobs and wealth in a way the President's policies have utterly failed to do over the past two years, but at the same time, it wouldn't cost the taxpayers a dime.  Now that’s what I call an investment in America's future.

 

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