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Mass transit needs mass to work: enough people must live and work near train stations and bus stops. Densely populated Eastern Massachusetts should therefore be a prime location for public transportation. Yet the MBTA faces budget woes and has threatened to close train stops. Despite the difficulties trains face in urban Boston, the Obama administration is pushing a new transportation agenda that promises high-speed rail in unlikely spots like Alabama and Oklahoma.
So far the Obama administration’s transportation spending has gone overwhelmingly to highways in states with plenty of roads relative to people. Per capita federal transportation spending in the 10 densest states, which include Massachusetts, is less than half of spending in the 10 least-dense states. This policy follows an established formula, but it makes little sense. Congestion problems are most severe in the dense areas that get less funding.
Now the administration wants Americans to envision high-speed rail lines in the wide-open spaces of Texas. The president has painted a vision: “Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination.’’ What’s wrong with this picture?
Despite investments in speedy Acela trains, politics and right-of-way problems mean that those trains take 210 minutes to travel the 200 miles between Boston and New York. Those problems are unlikely to vanish.
For most workers in America’s sprawling metropolitan areas, no train is going to drop them within walking distance of their home or job. In Greater Houston, only 11.6 percent of jobs are within three miles of an area’s center and more than 55 percent of jobs are more than 10 miles away from the city center. In Chicago, almost 70 percent of employment is more than 10 miles from the city center. Even in Greater Boston, 48 percent of jobs are over 10 miles from Beacon Hill.
There is a reason why 48 percent of Amtrak’s passengers travel on only two routes: the Northeast Corridor and the Los Angeles-San Diego line. For travelers in the less-dense areas between the coasts, cars beat trains for modest distances and planes win over long hauls.
The national high-speed rail agenda is being pushed with claims that these trains will jump-start economic growth. No serious evidence supports such claims. When new transportation does affect local economies, it generally does so by moving activity from one place to another, not by creating nationwide benefits.
The case for subsidizing urban mass transit, like the MBTA, is certainly debatable, but it is much stronger than the case for subsidizing rail links between non-coastal cities.
The MBTA’s core problem is that its operating expenses have always been double its operating costs. To function, the system needs about $900 million a year in subsidies from taxes and local assessments, which works out to slightly more than $2 a trip.
Amtrak also regularly faces a $1 billion gap between revenues and expenses, including depreciation, but since Amtrak carries only 29 million passengers each year, the per-trip subsidy tops $30.
While urban transit helps reduce the congestion that plagues our dense metropolitan areas, the highways between our heartland cities are famous for their open lanes. Subsidizing urban public transit is modestly progressive, since public-transit commuters are twice as likely to be poor as car commuters. By contrast, intercity rail travelers are wealthier than car travelers. The environmental benefits are larger for urban mass transit; Amtrak itself only claims to be 17 percent more fuel efficient than airlines.
The problem is that while common sense requires transportation modes and spending to be targeted to the local environment, politics demands that federal programs spend everywhere. A serious high-speed rail project would forget about Texas and focus on saving hours in the Northeast Corridor. A rational transportation program would target money to the areas that have the most congestion. A smart transportation policy would recognize the wisdom of using our existing infrastructure more efficiently, with the help of congestion pricing, rather than building more roads. Unfortunately, wisdom seems to take wing whenever politicians start envisioning the shining splendor of fast trains.