What's the Deal with High-Speed Trains?

Robert Samuelson wrote a column on the high-speed rail debate. What high-speed rail debate?

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Those who haven't been following the New York Times Economix blog may have been a trifle surprised yesterday by Robert Samuelson's emphatic denunciation of the Obama administration's ideas for a high-speed rail system. Samuelson's column was prominently featured in the Washington Post, an abrupt departure from other discussions of other proposed federal expenditures, such as in health care, that are receiving far more media coverage.

Samuelson attacked the administration's "enthusiasm for high-speed rail," citing Edward Glaeser's analysis on the Economix blog; the Harvard economist concluded that the costs of a high-speed rail network would far outweigh benefits. The conservative Samuelson took this as a starting point, discussing construction costs, ticket subsidizing, the inapplicability of the European-Asian model to the United States, and the failed example of Amtrak. He concluded by declaring the "mythology of high-speed rail" to be "antisocial," taking money from "schools, police, and (ironically) mass transit. [...] A White House so frivolous in embracing dubious spending cannot be believed when it professes concern about future taxes and budget deficits."

So what is going on here? Most of the major liberal bloggers have left this column alone so far. The task of defending party lines has instead fallen to the understudies. A few surprise opinions have popped up, as well.

  • Robert Samuelson Doesn't Like Trains, wrote liberal publication The American Prospect's Dean Baker. "That seems the unifying  theme from his column today, since his arguments against high speed rail do not make a lot of sense." Baker was particularly irritated by Samuelson's assertion that trains could be "useful in Japan and Europe," due to their higher population densities, but not in the U .S.: "The density for the United States as a whole would be relevant if the plans were to build a train network going from Florida to Alaska, but that is not what is on the agenda."
  • Infrastructure is Expensive  Matt Dernoga provided the debate's obligatory snarky, liberal college student position: "A large chunk of Samuelson’s argument is devoted to how we’ve poured $35 billion dollars worth of subsidies into Amtrak since 1971.  Hence all high-speed rail will be like amtrak [sic] and fail.  If I pull out a calculator, that’s less than a billion dollars a year on average.  Cry me a river. [...] infrastructure, believe it or not, costs money to upkeep."
  • This Conservative Wants Trains  Interestingly enough, professed conservative blogger Conservative Wahoo also disagreed with Samuelson: "Transportation infrastructure is one of the very few things the federal government ought to be doing. [...] This is what the Feds are for. Why not subsidize?"
  • Look at California  Robert Cruickshank, a high-speed rail advocate of the California High Speed Rail Blog, compared California to Spain, a country in which high-speed rail was a "dramatic success." He declared that Glaeser and others  "structure their analysis in such a way that ignores the whole context and leaves a lot out," while Samuelson "ignore[s] evidence entirely."
  • Conservatives and Liberals Both Wrong: Fund Urban Public Transportation Instead  Yesterday on ConstructionPundit, a major construction industry blog, Tom Jackson came up with his own, independent attack on the Obama administration's plans. Firstly, he began, all of the "proposed routes for the high-speed rail  network [...] are already well served by airlines." Secondly, "except for New York City, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, none of the other 30-plus cities on the map have enough public transportation to get you from the train stations to anywhere else in the destination city." Jackson, however, dismissing both liberals with their "pie-in-the-sky notions" and the conservatives who "reflexively hate public transportation," felt this pointed to yet another conclusion: "Since the government is bound and determined to spend this money anyway, Obama could actually do a great thing by enabling the cities to build robust public transportation networks."
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