Thursday, July 24, 2008

Trains as a matter of faith

I don't regard rail as a matter of theology. Truth be told, I like trains. If I am going to Chicago and can take the Hiawatha, I do. There are tracks about a half mile from my house. It would be great if I could catch a train and take it downtown (those tracks don't go there). But I understand that it's not going to happen if it's not economically viable. New York and DC and London and Boston have wonderful subway systems, but it'd be hard to make the numbers work for such a system here.

In some sense, rail is an antiquated technology. New and successful technologies tend to facilitate choice and accommodate what users want to do. Rail moves people along fixed points. If, as with the New York subway, large numbers of people want to move between these points, it works. If they don't, it works less well.

There are folks, like my former Backstory colleague Jim Rowen, who understand that and think it's a good thing. We need, in their view, to concentrate people. Making it harder to move where they will (the road to Sprawlsville) helps accomplish that.

This op-ed in the Wisconsin State Journal argues for a high speed Midwestern rail network. Such a system, it argues, would be great for every one. "It is a win-win-win: good for business, good for jobs and good for the environment." The absence of such a system "constrains our regional economy."

If that were so, then we could afford to build that system. If we - all of us - would be better off with some other rail system than what we have, then it would make sense for us to build it. But the op-ed acknowledges that this is not so:

Wisconsin is leading the charge as nine state transportation departments have committed to build a Midwest high-speed rail network. But the states can 't do it alone. A strong federal-state funding partnership is needed to develop high-speed passenger rail.

This says that we would like such a system but it won't pay for itself, so we need a federal subsidy. If that's so, then how is it a win-win-win? How much can the lack of more trains actually be holding back the regional economy. One would think that, if it was, it would be worth it for the region to pay for them.

In fact, the subsidy may not be to the Midwest, but to Madison. You can take the train from Milwaukee to Chicago. You can take the train from Milwaukee to the Cities. You can go to St. Louis and Indianapolis and Cleveland and Detroit and Cinncinati and all sorts of other places. Certainly the train could be faster (travel times seem to be about what it would take to drive there without traffic), but it will never be as fast as travel by air.


J. Gravelle said...

There's that "state money" and "federal money" shell game again.

It's all our friggin' money, and it doesn't matter which of my pockets the politicians are going to pull the money from.

Especially after they've stolen my pants...


Brian said...

Notice that we're told - continuously - that a rail system is self-sustaining and profitable and a net positive for commercial activity, but that we need local, state and federal tax dollars to facilitate it. Absent the very minor rationale for burdensome start-up costs for some commercial/social activity that eventually is self-sustaining [like the indirect subsidy of patents], which isn't even being suggested here as continual tax dollars would be needed to boost the system, this argument for a train system is perhaps the biggest non-sequitor of collectivist activism in the history of the United States.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who seriously studies passenger rail systems knows that they are NOT self-sustaining and profitable on an operating basis, even when the entire capital cost is fronted by the public sector.

However, that's the case for a lot of public investments. How about the $300 million each to support Miller Park or Lambeau Field? Or the Midwest Airlines or Monona Terrace convention centers? Are Miller Park, Lambeau Field or any of the convention centers consistently profitable and completely self-sustaining? Usually not, but the public appears to support these projects as providing an overall benefit to community image and growth potential.

The public investment in these facilities is roughly comparable to the cost for extending Amtrak to Madison or building the commuter rail line from Kenosha to Milwaukee.

Rick Esenberg said...

I am not religiously opposed to public funding for these types of improvement if there are external benefits that justify a subsidy. I am skeptical that is the case For KRM and almost certain it is not for extending Amtrak to Madison.

But if there are, then public institutions in the region ought to be willing to fund it. If we need a federal subsidy, then I suspect the regional benefits are not what proponents say they are.

Brian said...

Anonymous raises a good point. These types of "it's for the public good" justifications happen all the time. And, almost all the time, they are entirely bogus. Whether it is for a sports stadium or anything else, we're continuously told that something is or could be self-sustaining or that it is a net positive to the community and yet ... the public needs to finance it through tax dollars. Just look at the UWM study (yes, opposite another study that said the opposite which was financed by Bud Selig) which said that the Brewers' new stadium has done nothing for the greater community.

As with the rail system or Miller Park, if you really want to understand the underlying situation, you need to look at who stands to benefit from the proposal. As Field of Schemes revealed, the persons winning out on massive public subsidies are the owners, the owners and the owners of franchises. Looking at the rail system, you see that the benefactors are the greedy politicians who want yet another source of tax revenue and, more relevant to the rail debate, the potential builders of more rail lines and the public subsidy whores, like Amtrak, who will operate the rail line.

Dave Reid said...

Um roads don't pay for themselves. The gas tax and user fees don't come close to paying for roads. Yes property taxes and assessments subsidize roads. So since roads are subsidized I guess we shouldn't build those either. right?

Brian said...

Dave, Dave!

Actually, we wouldn't know whether they "come close to paying for themselves" since Doyle siphons off most of the Transportation budget for the teacher unions. The question is do they pay for themselves even societally? In other words, do they contribute more to commerce than they take away?

The answer for rail is flat out NO, they do not! As to roads, forgetting that we probably have crappier roads that we otherwise would if Doyle would stop putting his pudgy hands into the Transportation cookie jar, roads in and of themselves absolutely pay for themselves in terms of the commerce that they facilitate!

Imagine that no road connected Madison and Milwaukee and that somehow we could choose between two equally costly systems: a train and a highway. Which one would facilitate more commercial activity, so much so that the added economic growth would exceed that of the tax needed to construct it?

If you can answer that honestly, you've answered the entire question of trains.

joe stalin said...

Roads do pay for themselves.
The gas tax pays for our roads.
I realize that libs ignore that fact and seek more taxes for choo choo's that people don't seek.

nonheroicvet said...

I wonder if the opposition to subsidized passenger rail also applies to taxpayer subsidized rail spurs into taxpayer subsidized, half or more empty industrial parks.