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Is high-speed rail worth it in the U.S.?

Posting in Government

Is the Obama administration's proposed high-speed rail project a much-needed infrastructure project or an optimistic waste of financial resources? According to Harvard economics professor Edward Glaser, it's a bit of both.

Is the Obama administration's proposed high-speed rail project a much-needed infrastructure project or an optimistic waste of financial resources?

According to Harvard economics professor Edward Glaser, it's a bit of both.

While high-speed rail is certainly a feasible solution for the United States, it comes at a much higher cost than rhetoric would lead taxpayers to believe, Glaser writes in the New York Times' Economix blog.

Citing data from the Government Accountability Office (.pdf), Glaser writes that $50 million per mile is "a reasonable construction cost figure," but must be converted into a more realistic annual cost that includes interest. That brings the cost to $2.5 million per mile per year, or $600 million for a 240-mile line, he writes.

[Read the Federal Railroad Administration's high-speed rail briefing]

Similarly, Glaser cites a recent European estimate puts the cost of track maintenance at $140,000 a mile per year for a two-track system. Include that and the fixed costs of the track are now up to $648 million per year.

Finally, add in the costs of rolling stock purchase, maintenance and personnel. To compare, Amtrak's operating expenses run at about 45 cents a passenger mile. Even at 30 cents per passenger mile in operating costs, that translates to $72 for a 240-mile trip, Glaser estimates.

Comparing trains to planes, rail turns out to be less time and money (I urge you to read how Glaser calculates this in the original article.)

"If these numbers were right (and I think that they are very kind to rail), then the system should be able to run a healthy operating surplus," Glaser writes.

The only snag? Some of the suggested railway corridors (as shown in the above graphic) aren't exactly "a few steps" away, as President Obama has publicly stated.

Glaser uses Texas as an example:

"Driving will continue to be extremely attractive for travelers who want to save parking fees and need cars once they arrive....the new rail line [would be] about as popular as all airplane flights [in that area]."

A rough estimate to be sure, but you're the taxpayer in this situation. Do you support a high-speed rail network in the U.S.?

And at what cost point would you give up your support for high-speed rail: would you rescind your support at the break-even point, or would you risk a deficit?

Check out SmartPlanet's own John Dodge on why high-speed rail is worth it.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure