24 November, 2008

High-Speed Rail in the Midwest?

I've heard this idea bandied about and now Ryan Avent proposes it instead of an auto bailout:

High-speed rail would, in other words, turn Rust Belt distances into northeast corridor distances, while also shifting the Rust Belt closer to the northeast corridor. It would increase the return to doing business in every city in the region. It would be the Erie Canal and the original railroads on steroids.
I get the appeal of this idea. Pittsburgh to Minneapolis in three hours would be sweet. But if we have $50 billion to spend on high-speed rail somewhere, where should we put it? In California, connecting San Francisco with Los Angeles? In the Northeast, creating stronger connections between Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston? Or in the Rust Belt, linking Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, and Minneapolis?

It's fun to draw these lines on maps, but it's very hard for me to wrap my mind around the benefits of creating new linkages between places versus the benefits of enhancing already existing linkages between places. In particular, who would use a Midwest corridor if it existed? Are there really that many people in Detroit who need a cheap, fast way of getting to Minneapolis? On the other hand, people travel around the Northeast all the time. But that's because it's hard to travel around the Midwest and relatively easy to travel around the Northeast. So the choice is between creating new, potentially economically stimulating, connections between cities that currently have no such connection and strengthening connections that already exist.

It's not as obvious to me as it must be to Ryan that the former is the correct choice.

ADDENDUM: I also wanted to mention that there are huge differences between high-speed rail and the Erie Canal or even the original railroads that Ryan mentions as examples of transportation systems that high-speed rail's benefits would surpass. In particular, high-speed rail doesn't carry things, it just carries people. So it wouldn't have nearly the benefits of ye olde methods of transportation.


Elliot said...

From reading Ryan's post the point seems to be that HSR in the midwest would have a higher marginal impact since you are starting from much lower levels of connectedness than on the coasts. Those linkages aren't there, and so there is more room to grow by facilitating them.

HSR on the coasts by contrast would probably do more in terms of climate change, but economically it may not provide as much of a boost because the Acela corridor is already (relative to the midwest) well connected.

And the trade-off he's presenting anyway (maybe slightly tongue-in-cheekily) isn't between two HSR projects, but between an auto bailout and a HSR.

But maybe Bama's stimulus package will be awesome and include a comprehensive HSR plan, which could address all three areas simultaneously.

Quadrivium said...

Actually, California voters approved a bond referendum earlier this month to do some of the preliminary work on HSR there. The proposed routing would link San Diego to San Francisco via Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley (Fresno, Sacramento). HSR could also carry some freight, but it would be more like small FedEx packages than coal.

Perhaps HSR along the major N-S corridors (Interstates 5, 25, 35, 95) to start, then E-W links?