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A Balanced Examination of HSR and National Transportation Needs

It’s time for a balanced dialog on infrastructure investment needed to support our nation’s economic vitality for the future. We need to get beyond advocacy arguments where someone first decides the answer and then selectively picks facts to bolster it. Let’s learn from the article on high speed rail by columnist Robert Samuelson that was recently published in Newsweek[1]It is useful because it illustrates all three classic elements of erroneous reasoning that many of us learned in school debate and statistics classes:


· “Sleight of Hand: Shifting Metrics.” It’s an old trick – if you want to make something look big then express it in absolute terms, and if you want to make something look small then express it as a relative percentage. So we read that the cost of high speed trains is a large dollar amount but the benefit is a small percent of the nation’s total fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, one could argue the opposite by showing costs as small compared to the national defense budget and benefits as a large number of gallons of savings in imported petroleum. Both ways feature non-comparable measures of benefit and cost.


· “Red Herrings: Bogus Issues.” It’s another old trick – raise irrelevant concerns to either introduce alarm or put down the subject matter. So we read that high speed trains will do little to solve the problems of suburban sprawl, urban congestion and delays for commuters. These points are undoubtedly correct but also irrelevant because high speed trains are meant to serve inter-city travel and not local commuting trips.


· “False Basis of Comparison.” The other classic trick is to assume a base of comparison that is not really available. So we read that we can save the “waste of money,” implying that we don’t need to spend money on anything else instead to keep future conditions no worse than they are today. That is not really possible. Our nation’s population is growing, our economy is shifting towards broader markets for business and tourism, and demand for inter-city travel is growing. We can meet that need in many ways (utilizing air, road and/or rail investments) but all will have a cost. Or we can let travel conditions degrade in the future.


A recent study of the US Conference of Mayors, using research by our firm, was the first to examine how true high speed trains could affect the economic development of individual cities[2]. It found high stakes, including potentially significant impacts on patterns of business and visitor trips, job creation and the development of economic clusters among cities. Yet the report did not pretend to address the relative costs or financial requirements or alternative options available, as they are being addressed in other studies. Perhaps the most rational reaction to this report was offered by an economist at the Heritage Foundation, who was realistic enough to note that if you invest substantial money on a specific corridor, you can get a huge economic impact, but that does not necessarily make it worthwhile. In other words, we shouldn’t doubt that high speed trains can help local economies, but we still need to look carefully at costs, financing and alternatives for future inter-city travel. Until that work is done, we have no business uniformly rejecting high speed trains (or unconditionally promoting them everywhere). We also cannot pretend that doing nothing is a good idea.

[1] Newsweek article: High Speed Rail is a Fast Track to Government Waste



[2] US Conference of Mayors Study: The Economic Impact of High Speed Rail on Cities and their Metro Areas, 2010.



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