Equal Time: Transportation hype inflates facts and figures

With wide-eyed naiveté, proponents of high-speed rail point to service in Europe and Asia to demonstrate the next great thing in transportation for the United States. But Americans will travel a lot further on the hype over President Obama's pledge of $13 billion for high-speed rail than any money will go.

The prospect of a time-saving bullet train between Atlanta and Charlotte or Atlanta and Raleigh is thrilling. Analysis suggests that a train like France's TGV, which averages 155 mph, could cut the four-hour drive between Atlanta and Charlotte to about 90 minutes. The 6 1/2-hour drive to Raleigh could take just 2 1/2 hours. But why? Why would hard-working taxpayers of Georgia and North Carolina — indeed, any taxpayer — want to foot the billion-dollar bill on a 244-mile project between Atlanta and Charlotte? Georgia already struggles to meet its transportation needs with a $2 billion annual budget. And why, especially, when flights and road capacity are already adequate? Would passenger trips justify this megaregion "investment" or is this a money pit of a make-work project? Policy-makers need to approach with caution feasibility studies in which consultants with a romance-the-rail agenda also "romance" ridership projections and economic potential.

Americans also need to know the cost of a national high-speed rail network. The $8 billion is described as a jump-start, but it's more an inch-forward.

California estimates it would cost $45 billion just to construct a high-speed network linking San Francisco, San Jose, the Central Valley and Los Angeles with trains traveling at 220 miles per hour. And transportation infrastructure projects are notorious at low-balling costs: A Reason Foundation analysis found the final price tag actually at $65 billion to $81 billion.

"The key policy implication for this consequential and highly expensive field of public policy is that those legislators, administrators, bankers, media representatives and members of the public who value honest numbers should not trust the cost estimates presented by infrastructure promoters and forecasters," an American Planning Association report warned in 2002.

Those who point to France's TGV, Japan's Shinkansen and Germany's InterCityExpress as examples of high-speed rail's success conveniently neglect to mention that population density and the inconvenience and high cost of driving in these regions make trains more attractive, increasing ridership and reducing passenger subsidies needed to support service. Those trains operate on tracks not shared with freight, with separate rights of way, wider curves and little grade.

This is not to say the time for high-speed rail will never come. Proponents of Georgia's failed Northern Arc recognize the cost of not preparing for the future. Preparation is key, and the challenge of acquiring right of way for the proposed corridors is enormous and growing.

In Georgia, moving from cost-effective bus-rapid transit to commuter rail to high-speed rail will require right of way. Buy it now while land prices and population density are low. Then make the next generation of rail the template: If commuter rail becomes a part of Georgia's future, the enhanced corridors must be adaptable to high-speed rail. Most of all, never hinder freight rail corridors so crucial to economic progress.

As the competition begins, Georgia's policy-makers need to keep in mind the principles of good transportation policy: congestion relief and mobility. Then prioritize projects and differentiate between "investing" and "squandering" taxpayer funds. For now, the best approach is to go slow on high-speed rail or see critically needed funds diverted from existing transportation modes.

Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a conservative public policy group.