RALEIGH — North Carolina would waste taxpayers’ money if it signs on to federal plans for high-speed rail service. That’s the conclusion of a new John Locke Foundation Policy Report.
“The average North Carolinian will take a round trip on a high-speed train only once every 27 years,” said report author Randal O’Toole, senior fellow at the Cato Institute. “That’s certainly not worth the cost of pursuing high-speed rail service for this state. The administration’s proposed high-speed rail plan will cost $1,000 for every federal income taxpayer, yet the average American would rarely or never ride high-speed trains.”
President Obama persuaded Congress to devote $8 billion of federal stimulus funds to high-speed rail projects across the country, O’Toole said. The federal government will accept proposals from the states to build some of the 8,500 route-miles of high-speed rail identified by the Federal Railroad Administration.
FRA released criteria June 17 for state applications for high-speed rail projects. The deadline for preliminary applications is July 10. O’Toole’s report warns that the cost of these projects could grow to be “hundreds of billions of dollars with very little public or environmental benefit.”
North Carolinians should look below the surface of the federal plan, O’Toole said. “Only a small portion of the FRA system would consist of true high-speed bullet trains,” he said. “North Carolina and 30 other states could expect no better than moderate-speed trains with top speeds of 110 miles per hour and average speeds between 55 and 75 miles per hour.”
Those speeds will not entice many people to leave their cars, O’Toole said. “Not only will those trains do little to take cars off the roads, such trains will actually be less energy-efficient and more polluting than driving.”
Upgrading the nearly 400 miles of North Carolina tracks in the FRA plan to run trains at 110 mph would cost taxpayers more than $1.3 billion, O’Toole said. “That’s nearly $150 for every North Carolina resident,” he said. “Subsidizing passenger trains over those routes would cost close to $25 million per year. The numbers add up to a bad deal for North Carolinians.”
That’s why North Carolina should limit the ways it proposes to use federal stimulus money, O’Toole said. “North Carolina should apply for a share of the $8 billion solely for incremental improvements to existing rail lines such as better grade crossings,” he said. “It should not plan to purchase new locomotives and railcars for passenger service that will be both expensive to operate and harmful to the environment.”
O’Toole’s report describes the federal high-speed rail plan as “an expensive slippery slope” that could end up costing taxpayers across the country $500 billion for “a transportation system that few will ever use.”
“Most taxpayers will use these trains rarely or not at all,” O’Toole explained. “The few Americans who would regularly ride the trains are high-income people who work downtown: bankers, lawyers, and government officials. They hardly need subsidized transportation.”
The report also rebuts claims that high-speed trains are more energy-efficient than cars. “Those claims are based on inaccurate assumptions about the average number of people traveling in intercity auto trips,” O’Toole explained. “Moreover, both auto and airline energy efficiencies are growing much faster than rail.”
The federal plan for North Carolina calls for running ordinary diesel-powered Amtrak trains at somewhat higher speeds than they run today. To reach these higher speeds, these trains will consume more diesel fuel and spew more toxic pollution and greenhouse gases than they do today, O’Toole said. “It is far more cost-effective to save energy by encouraging people to drive more fuel-efficient cars than to build and operate high-speed rail.”
O’Toole also tackles the White House argument that the federal high-speed rail plan mirrors President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System project in the 1950s. “There are several crucial differences between interstate highways and high-speed rail,” he said. “First, Congress knew roughly how much interstates would cost before approving their construction, while few — if any — members of Congress have any idea how much the FRA’s high-speed rail system will cost.”
“Second, Congress had a plan to pay for interstate highways through gas taxes and other highway user fees; not a single dollar of general taxpayer money was spent on the roads,” O’Toole added. “The FRA has no financial plan for high-speed rail and no source of funds.”
While interstates “truly did revolutionize American travel,” high-speed rail “will never be more than a tiny, but expensive part” of America’s transportation network, O’Toole said. “A final difference is that a majority of Americans travel over an interstate at least once a week, while high-speed trains will mainly be used by a relatively wealthy elite.”
Fighting traffic congestion makes more sense than building a national high-speed rail network, O’Toole said. “Traffic congestion wastes nearly 3 billion gallons of fuel each year, and simple techniques to reduce congestion — such as traffic signal coordination and congestion pricing of roads — are far more cost-effective than building expensive rail lines that few people will use.”
“North Carolina can do many things to improve transportation networks in cost-effective ways,” O’Toole added. “High-speed rail is not one of those things.”
Randal O’Toole’s Policy Report, “Why North Carolina Should Not Build High-Speed Rail,” is available at the JLF Web site. For more information, please contact O’Toole at 541-595-1460 or [email protected]. Or contact Dr. Michael Sanera at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].