When you are sitting in your car in a parking lot on the insterstate, staring out the windows and hoping for a better song on the radio, lots of ideas can sound like good ones. The highway and road systems are often chastised by policy makers, city planners and environmental activists as a cause of negative sprawl, and many different problems in our urban and suburban areas. In fact, President Obama is interested in pursuing a plan to develop more high-speed rail systems across the United States in order to eliminate many of these challenges.
The President's vision for the rail system involves several components that he believes will be a marked improvement from our current situation. He argues that the rail system will be able to pull Americans off of highways, which should lower our dependence on foreign oil, as well as lower our gas bill from filling tanks. He argues that there will be increased labor productivity in the areas serviced by the rail, by decreasing the amount of congestion that travels in and out of the city. Most impressively, he argues that there will be a great environmental impact, a lessening of damage to the planet.
Edward Glaeser, an economist at Harvard, would disagree with this assessment from an economic perspective. He has been attempting to run a cost-benefit analysis over several weeks to develop an evaluation of the effects of a single rail-connection between Dallas and Houston. His estimates for this area specifically would seem to indicate that the costs would exceed the benefits (including estimates for environmental and social benefits) by $524 million dollars per year, if the ridership of the rail was equal to the air traffic between the two cities. Clearly this is a simplified and fairly estimated argument, but it presents a huge difference between an investment in America that will successfully save us money from reliance on fossil fuels and an expenditure that is unsustainable. As long as Glaeser's assumptions hold reasonably well to reality, he paints a very convincing argument that a high-speed rail system would do very little to change the existing situations in metropolitan areas for the better.