The Barbershop has re-located

The proprietor has moved the shop to ChicagoNow, a Chicago Tribune site that showcases some of the best bloggers in the Chicago area. You can logo on to the Barbershop home page here. The ChicagoNow home page is here.

You'll still be able to post comments with the same ease as in this location. The proprietor also will keep this web site alive if you wish to review old posts.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The fantasy of high-speed rail

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

How much would you pay to get to Milwaukee 10 minutes faster?

Not a cent, you say? Nothing against Milwaukee; it's a lovely town. But, if President Barack Obama gets his way, the Milwaukee-in-a-flash dream could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions. His vision of a network of high-speed trains -- many fanning out from Chicago to Milwaukee and elsewhere -- would cost $8 billion. Actually, that's just the start. The eventual cost to taxpayers of creating a network of trains zipping across America at rocket-train speeds would be way, way more.

Some visionaries (and government contractors) would argue that realizing the promise of high-speed rail travel is worth the cost. Ray LaHood, U.S. transportation secretary and former Illinois Republican congressmen, said in a new report, "A Vision for High- Speed Rail in America," that they included "building a robust, green economy, gaining energy independence, reversing global climate change and fostering more livable, connected communities."

That's quite a promise. But before building the gravy train to nirvana, some questions are in order, starting with, is it worth it? Federal regulations require that projects meet a cost-benefit test.

The costs? Well, we're talking about "high-speed" trains that would go up to 110 m.p.h, instead of the standard 79 m.p.h. speed limit on most passenger train service. That's far short of the 200-m.p.h-plus that most people think of when they're talking about bullet trains. Achieving the higher speeds would require the construction of entirely separate rights-of-way to avoid conflicts with Metra commuter trains. Every place the high-speed line would cross a street or highway, an expensive viaduct or underpass would have to be built. Less expensive street-level grade crossings would be unthinkable. Costs would skyrocket way beyond $8 billion.

Then there's the cost of separating the high-speed trains from the area's crisscrossing and clogged freight lines. In Chicago, that's been an eternal conflict, only now being addressed with a joint public and private improvement program costing in excess of $1 billion. And that's not even figuring in the new high-speed service.

In addition, expect intense local opposition from people who don't want 110-m.p.h. trains roaring through their communities. Think about the 1995 accident when a Metra commuter train going 70 m.p.h. rammed a school bus at a Fox River Grove grade crossing, killing seven children. The environment and social impact on communities bisected by any new high-speed lines would be substantial and controversial.

The benefits? Will the time saved in travel be sufficient to lure enough travelers out of their cars in trips between Chicago; Milwaukee; Madison, Wis.; St. Louis; Indianapolis; and Detroit? Proving that and other benefits requires rigid, independent analysis, and certainly more than the rosy projections of rail fans, greenies and romantics. Already, I've run across two student studies that challenge the cost and benefit assumptions of a couple of high-speed segments. If students can find the problem, I can hardly wait to see what independent professionals say.

I've enjoyed high-speed rail in France, and I believe it would be a joy here too. But France isn't the Midwest, where distances between major cities are greater and population densities lower. High-speed rail for years has been stuck at the awe-gee, wouldn't-it-be-great stage. Based on little more than that, columnists are rhapsodizing over the idea and public officials in the proposed high-speed corridors are dreaming of train loads of federal largesse. High-speed rail is one of those popular notions that's hard to oppose, positioning anyone who questions the practicality of it as an old buzzard who recoils from all the possibilities that life has to offer.

Well, here's a possibility, and I think a better one for the money. The Federal Transit Administration recently released a study estimating that bringing the CTA and major rail transit systems in six cities into good repair would cost $50 billion, and another $5.9 billion year to maintain them. Between spending more money for faster, safer and better rides for the many more who ride CTA trains, or cutting 10 or even 30 minutes off a trip between Chicago and Milwaukee, I don't think there should be any debate about where the money goes. Unless, of course, you think -- as many do these days -- that those cherry blossoms along the Washington tidal basin will ripen into endless harvests of money.

More comments can be seen and posted at the Chicago Tribune

No comments: