Part 3 of Harvard economist Edward Glaeser's series on HSR costs and benefits is up at the New York Times' Economix Blog. This week's entry focuses on the environmental impact of trains, and "other social benefits" that are rather nebulously defined. Parts of his entry are less objectionable than in the past, but overall Glaeser's approach to HSR, based on an arbitrarily limited set of factors, continues to produce anti-HSR conclusions that lead me to wonder if that was his goal all along.
Before getting into the meat of his analysis, Glaeser took a moment to defend himself against criticism, including from this blog, about his choice of a Dallas-Houston HSR route:
As in the previous two posts, I focus on a mythical 240-mile-line between Houston and Dallas, which was chosen to avoid giving the impression that this back-of-the-envelope calculation represents a complete evaluation of any actual proposed route. (The Texas route will be certainly far less attractive than high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor, but it is not inherently less reasonable than the proposed high-speed rail routes across Missouri or between Dallas and Oklahoma City.)
This is a totally misleading comparison. It's not Texas vs. the NEC, or even Missouri vs. the NEC. Although the blog post is headed with an image of a California high speed train, Glaeser never once mentions the California route. Nor does he mention the other federal HSR corridors, many of which connect cities with denser populations than the Sunbelt cities he insists on examining. Glaeser's entire argument is basically an examination of Texas HSR, and not of the actual national HSR plan. So his entire exercise is somewhat suspect in my mind.
Glaeser's focus is on carbon emissions, and here he isn't quite wrong:
If I assume, relatively arbitrarily, that one-half of the rail riders used to take cars and one-half used to take planes, and that there is no extra travel generated by the rail line, then each 240-mile train trip eliminates 113 pounds of carbon dioxide for each passenger in our atmosphere. These estimates suggest that trains are green, which differs from the studies, which include the emissions from building the rail system, cited by Eric Morris at Freakonomics.
Which confirms some of what we have been saying on this blog for quite some time. The CHSRA's own studies have predicted that 12 billion pounds of carbon emissions per year would be eliminated. Obviously one can and should debate those numbers, but that's pretty compelling stuff, and it's good that Gleaser understands the role HSR can play in reducing emissions.
Glaeser doesn't stop here. I think it is a sound concept to try and place the reduced emissions in a broader context. But Glaeser hasn't really done this in an effective way:
Combining reduced carbon emissions, reduced congestion and reduced traffic mortality provides an extra $21.63 million worth of benefits a year from the rail line, which increases the $102 million benefit minus operating costs figure from last week to $124 million, which is still far less than the $648 million estimated cost per year of building and maintaining the infrastructure.
The environmental and mortality benefits of rail are real, but the magnitude of the social benefits from switching modes seems is quite small relative to the cost of the system.
I'll let someone else check the numbers here. What bugs me is that yet again Glaeser assesses this on its own. What of the cost of doing nothing? How much savings would the trains be over the costs of building new roads and airports to handle any increased demand?
Also left unstated are the other economic benefits of rail. What of the jobs it creates? And the tax revenues those jobs create? What of the green dividend - the new economic activity created by freeing people from congestion and oil dependence?
Once again Glaeser fails on this. He uses an unrepresentative HSR line and assesses it outside the full context, without discussing the true costs and the true benefits.
Note: I am currently in Pittsburgh, PA for the Netroots Nation meeting of progressive bloggers. My posting may be a bit sporadic, but I hope to keep up with the one-a-day ideal.
Yesterday was a travel day for most attendees, as it was for me, and thunderstorms caused major delays at airports here in the northeastern US. Some were stuck on their landed planes, sitting at the gate, unable to deplane because of the possibility of lightning striking the metal jetway. Friends of mine who came to Pittsburgh from nearby eastern cities frequently remarked how much easier this would have been had there been a high speed train available - one that can operate in a thunderstorm.