Yesterday we looked at Edward Glaeser's silly attack on HSR in the New York Times' Economix Blog. Today we have another attack on HSR in the New York Times - this time from Eric Morris at the Freakonomics Blog. Ryan Avent summed it up well via Twitter:
Eric Morris closes HSR series by referring readers to Randal O'Toole. You know, in case you thought he and Glaeser were aiming for an honest critique.
Certainly neither Glaeser nor I pretend to have the last word on this topic. We are looking to start some debate, not finish it. So if you want to learn more on the pros of true HSR, check out the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s site, or this report for the views of an articulate critic, the Cato Institute’s Randall O’Toole.
Either Morris is joking or is even more in the tank against HSR than we ever thought. Randall O'Toole as a credible source on passenger trains?!?! This is the same guy who thinks riding a train is more harmful than driving an SUV and whose difficulties with facts and evidence has been well documented.
But it's not just the company Morris keeps that damns his blog post. Morris has a rather interesting justification for his work on HSR planning:
I have extensive experience planning, designing, constructing, financing, and operating HSR networks; these have spanned the nation and have been terrifically elegant, with state-of-the-art locomotive technology and thousands of miles of flat, straight track to keep speeds high.
However, those HSR systems were built from electricity, not steel. And while the HSR currently being proposed will cost tens of billions, the cost of my HSR network was comparatively modest: perhaps $30 in fixed costs for the purchase of the computer game Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon, plus negligible variable costs for the power to run my computer and depreciation on my mouse button. The sum total of the utility I experienced from this kind of HSR paid for those costs many times over.
That's like saying I can run a street gang because I played Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. How ridiculous do economics bloggers for the NYT not named Paul Krugman have to get before we stop taking them seriously?
The primary problem that afflicts Morris's attack on HSR is the exact same problem that afflicted Edward Glaeser's articles as well: they persistently refuse to examine HSR costs in context:
Costs in the real world are quite different. HSR is an exciting idea, and if we could make it appear by magic wand it’d be a terrific addition to our transportation network. But everything has a price, and the way things currently stand, the projected costs look like they outweigh the benefits. If the thought of some ominous budget numbers lurking on a piece of paper in far-off Washington doesn’t move you, consider the opportunity costs of this spending, in terms of health care, education, the economy, defense, or a (more effective) method of slowing global warming. Or if you want to keep the money in the realm of transportation, it could go to address what I consider to be the more serious problem we are facing: moving people around within our cities, not between them.
There are innumerable flaws with this analysis, which is actually the heart of Morris's post. Morris claims to speak of opportunity cost, but where is the estimate of how much it will take to expand roads and airports in California to handle the passenger loads that HSR will handle? Estimates for that range from $80 billion to $160 billion. But nobody aside from Morris Brown thinks California HSR will approach even the lower range of that estimate.
Morris appears to think that air travel will continue to remain cheap, plentiful and affordable. A kind of perpetual 2007. Last year we talked quite a bit about the airline crisis - how rising oil prices have jeopardized the easy air travel that we have come to expect here in the US. Airports in smaller cities have begun bribing airlines to maintain service, and cities like Fresno and Bakersfield have struggled to maintain the airline service they still have.
For Morris to basically ignore the problems of the airlines he has to ignore the all-important question of whether oil prices will remain at the same price they're at now. There is ample reason to believe they will not. Even during a severe recession gas costs at least $3/gal across most of California, the threshold that once crossed in 2006 helped burst the housing bubble. Once growth resumes, whenever that might be, oil prices are widely expected to rise again, especially considering the steady increase in global demand.
HSR is not the same as ongoing expenditures for health care or education. Like the Golden Gate Bridge or the Shasta Dam, it is a piece of infrastructure that enables economic activity to continue and grow well into the future. It enables health care and education spending to continue, rather than become strangled by gridlock.
And yes, Eric Morris, HSR will help intracity transportation just as it will provide intercity transportation. In California HSR will be used by commuters within regions just as it will be used by commuters between regions. The HSR route will serve as a transit spine for the state, with its key nodes (SF Transbay, SJ Diridon, LA Union Station) becoming the centerpieces of local rail. HSR is a rising tide that lifts all transportation boats.
Unfortunately, Morris is so in thrall to Randall O'Toole's anti-rail jihad that he won't stop to consider these aspects. Instead he uses the same arbitrarily limited and therefore insufficient scope to mislead readers about the true costs of projects. The Golden Gate Bridge might not have penciled out in the first 5 years from its opening in 1937, but hardly anyone today would argue the Bay Area is better off without it. 30 years from now, when Californians travel around their state on high speed trains, they too will wonder why anyone thought building it was anything but a sensible and farsighted idea.