Is high-speed rail for St. Paul a safe bet?

Supporters of a high-speed rail line between Chicago and St. Paul have posted a video to YouTube touting the benefits of bringing the city’s Union Depot back to prominence in the transportation scheme of things.

The group, OnBoard Midwest, is trying to whip up support for getting the project included in a comprehensive transportation plan the Legislature mandated MnDOT to prepare.

The Obama administration’s stimulus plan allocated $8 billion for the entire country, nowhere near enough to build much of a nationwide system, but enough to fund some planning. The Federal Railroad Administration will announce the recipients in September.

The local group wants to use existing Amtrak lines along the Mississippi. But a group in Rochester is lobbying for the rail line through that city, citing the population and economic growth in the region.

Would high-speed rail be a boost to St. Paul? Is it a good public investment?

Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, in a recent New York Times column, said it comes down to simple math. Forget subsidies. It’s all about benefits outweighing the cost, he said:

I would be delighted to share the president’s optimism about high-speed rail, but if benefits do not exceed the costs, then America will just be living through a real-life version of “Marge vs. the Monorail,” where the residents of the Simpsons’ Springfield were foolishly infatuated with a snazzy rail project oversold in song by Phil Hartman’s character.

In a subsequent column, Glaeser provided the formula for evaluating the investment:

Number of Riders times (Benefit per Rider minus Variable Costs per Rider) minus Fixed Costs.

He found that high speed rail will cost four times the benefit.