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.

  • Jeff

    Interesting analysis. Glaeser is a good urban economist. But I wonder if there are more factors to take into account. Like, is rail travel easier on the environment (commercial aircraft spew TONS of carbon into the atmosphere…trains spew less per passenger, don’t they?).

    And isn’t there environemtal and economic value to picking up passengers en route? Fewer people would have to drive their cars from Winona (or perhaps Rochester!) to MSP in order to ultimately get to Chicago.

    For that matter, dropping people off along the way would present an economic benefit to those communities that are suddenly more accessable than they were before. Could Midwest rail tourism start to compete with the European rail vacation?

    Of course, I’m not sure the Eurorail system is turning a profit. But it is a fundamental part of society there, contributing significantly to the quality of life. So maybe there are other benefits worth weighing when evaluating a transportation revolution. (How profitable, by the way, is the Interstate highway system?)

  • Joey Iverson

    Glaeser’s analysis painfully–painfully–fails to account for the effects of peak oil on the relative costs of electric trains and oil-powered airplanes. I can’t fathom how this issue remains on the back burner of America’s collective consciousness, even as we attempt to have frank discussions about the future of our transportation system. We cannot continue to rely on massive quantities of oil to get us where we need to go. It will not be there.

  • Glaeser is normally a great urban economist, but for some reason he gives a very one-sided account of the costs and benefits of rail. It’s very complicated, and includes many direct and indirect costs and benefits on both sides of the comparison between rail, cars, and airplanes. In this case, Glaeser doesn’t even try to treat the three options equally

    For example, he includes maintenance costs of the rail lines, but doesn’t include any ongoing costs for infrastructure for freeways or airports (let alone including their original construction costs in the comparison).

    I’m not High-Speed rail’s biggest fan. I think we should invest in any speed rail first, because the current state of the US rail system makes Bulgaria look good. But Obama’s initiative is a forward-thinking idea, and makes a lot of sense for the long-term. My sense is that some columnists, Glaeser in this case, get their jollies by debunking, and this is his chance to publically skewer one of Obama’s pipe dreams

  • Chris__

    When we plan freeways, do we ask “how many riders will there be out to Springfield?” No, we sometimes think “gosh, Springfield is a prime place for growth, let’s direct transportation there.” For some reason, that consideration totally drops out when we think of rail. Rail (as we’ve seen with LRT) drives growth.

    Besides that (as Jess alludes to) it makes labor more mobile across a wider area. People can better use their skills in places where they’re more highly valued. Rail makes this happen better by eliminating the need for slow, costly automobiles.

    Joey missed the fact that trains use far, far less oil than cars. Trains are much much much more environmentally friendly, even ignoring the fact that they encourages denser development that reduces congestion and inefficient land uses.

    My worry is that this won’t be high-speed. In other countries, they got rail that can get you far really fast. Here, we have to make 4000 stops in every politically important city along the way, on tracks that were made for 19th century trains. If we do this, I hope we do it right and make it fast.

  • Joanna

    This kind of story makes me tear my hair out. I just got back from Spain which has invested in high-speed rail for distances very comparable to St Paul0Chicago. it has made a HUGE difference in how people travel because it is a viable alternative to air travel for certain kinds of trips. I just took Amtrak between the Twin Cities and Chicago and it’s appalling how poor the quality of the tracks is. I had to take a bus for one leg of my trip because the train was 5 hours late, again due to poor track quality elsewhere on the line. There were moments during the trip (which is gorgeous, by the way) when I thought the train would leave the tracks. If there were high speed rail to Chicago, I’d use it frequently, just for long weekends. It’s easier and more comfortable than flying, less polluting, etc, etc.

    I also noticed tons of new windmills generating wind power, as well as large scale solar arrays while traveling across Spain. While we dither about energy savings, they are doing it. Great public transport in every city, extremely energy efficient appliances (much better than ours), universal health care….we are behind, man!

  • Bob Moffitt

    I hope it is a “sure bet.” I would guess that with Rep. Oberstar’s continued support, it will happen.

    Not to pick on commentor Joanna, but the term is “wind turbine,” not windmill. We are not grinding grain with wind power these days.

  • JackU

    I’ve often wondered why there isn’t a limited stop high speed rail line from St Paul to Chicago with stops in Rochester and Milwaukee en route. But of course I would envision a system that included feeders from St Cloud and Duluth to St Paul and Madison to Milwaukee, etc. Include a business class with “conference cars” and it would be a great option for people headed to a business meeting in one of the other cities. A team can travel together and prepare on the way.

    I ride Amtrak when I can. My main trip on Amtrak is to New York to visit family. I’m often asked why I’m willing to “waste” a day and a half to get there when an airplane will get me there in about 3 hours? I don’t have a really good answer but I personally like the pace of train travel. I view the travel as part of the trip. Its a day and half to do some things I might not have a chance to whether here or there.

  • Bob Collins

    Flying is pretty much an all-day affair now, isn’t it? Gotta get to the airport 90 minutes early, throw in another hour (or more) for delays and ground stops, another 45 minutes to get to the baggage carousel, then the drive to wherever you’re going.

    I drove East this year by car (1376) miles and considered it a fair trade to the time and expense of taking a plane.

    it was worth not having all the hassles.

    But that is also the limitation of train travel. A train doesn’t get you where you’re going. If you’re lucky, it gets you NEAR where you’re going. By that standard, you can’t beat a car.

  • JohnnyZoom

    re train, I can understand Minnesotians gripes with Amtrak scheduling for all but the most straightforward routes, but here on the Northeast Corridor, it is a godsend.

    Having business in DC, Baltimore, Philly, NYC and Boston somewhat regularly, nothing beats it. All it takes is a cab ride at each end.

    But I’m lucky. [g]

  • kennedy

    Rail is more useful if your departure point and destination are near a depot. Of course, usefulness has very little to do with whether taxes will fund the project. Our own light rail is an example. It’s a shiny new toy that makes us feel hip, modern, and environmentally conscious. It’s like an iPod. It sure looks cool, but there are less expensive travel options.

    With state and federal budget defecits, we should look to control spending. Building rail will not only deplete funds now, but into the future to fund ridership. Our own light rail costs taxpayers $15 million per year to operate. I find it interesting that the report indicates a net “income” of $305k.

  • Joanna

    Bob, thanks for the correction about windmill/wind turbine! I like to use terms accurately.

    The Spanish popularly call them “molinos de viento” which means windmill, so that’s the term I used, but technically there is probably a more accurate term in Spanish as well. In either case, I saw a huge increase in their numbers as I drove through regions I visit every year.

  • ABC

    // But that is also the limitation of train travel. A train doesn’t get you where you’re going. If you’re lucky, it gets you NEAR where you’re going. By that standard, you can’t beat a car. //

    In all the discussion about effective and energy saving transportation, I’m surprised PRT (personal rapid transit) hasn’t come back into the mix. For that matter, why don’t PRT advocates talk about other uses for PRT, like door-to-door delivery of “light freight”?

  • Joey Iverson

    Chris: Maybe I obfuscated. I meant that we need alternatives like rail that drastically reduce the amount of oil used, and this analysis was missing from the story linked. I’m with you.

  • JackU

    @Bob Collins: You are absolutely correct when it comes to driving. That’s why we drive to my in-laws in Oklahoma. We have better control of time and the trip.

    As far as the trip to New York is concerned the Amtrak station we get off at (Croton-Harmon if people are keeping score) is a lot closer to where my folks live then any of the airports. (Except maybe Westchester County and don’t get me started about that airport.) So for my brother, who usually has “taxi” duty, its a pretty easy pickup.

  • Chris_

    But that is also the limitation of train travel. A train doesn’t get you where you’re going. If you’re lucky, it gets you NEAR where you’re going. By that standard, you can’t beat a car.

    This is like a chicken and egg thing: a limitation of train travel is that there’s no trains to get me to my home? If you lived in Chicago, it’d be a different story. Granted, the TC will never be Chicago — but we can give some people options to get them off the road/reduce congestion, and do some other good things in the process.

    The other good things: slowing sprawl. Right now, people always choose the cheapest land in the expanding circle of cheap suburbs. That progressive movement outward to cheap land (to Bloomington in the 50s, or Apple Valley in the 80s, or Rogers now) will slow and that’s a good thing. Putting people in a million suburbs on million-acre lots a million miles from the TC Core increases the commute time for everyone, makes it super wasteful to provide city services (water, etc), and makes it difficult for cities to compete once land becomes cheaper elsewhere. It’s tough to get out of this cycle of cities entering into the downward spiral of crappiness.

    That spiral of crappiness can slow when people stop using cars to leapfrog each other out to the new temporarily cheap land. If people build more densely near the big city , this is good. Trains enable that, and that type of development enables more train-making. That, instead, is a cycle of un-crappiness.

  • Bob Collins

    The key to getting people to live in the city is a decent school system and low crime.

    And, I’d argue, in downtown St. Paul, a little retail wouldn’t hurt.

  • Brandon Todd

    My wife and I recently spent a weekend in MSP visiting a friend, enjoying the Minnesota State Fair, and touring the Mall of America. While we certainly enjoyed the scenic drive in our clunker, three of our five days vacation was spent in MSP (the other two were driving to and from). In our time in MSP we didn’t once have to move our car – we parked it and used the public transportation. The bus stops were practical and timely, and the light rail system efficient and useful! Had we a reliable, flexible, and expedient option for public transportation from Chicago to MSP we would have taken it in a heartbeat. It made me ashamed to think of our hourly Metra train service to the Chicago suburbs.