TreeHugger’s Non-Arguments in Favor of High-Speed Rail

Following George Will’s article on high-speed rail as a shiny new object for wealthy liberals comes this remarkably poor defense from a TreeHugger blogger, if one can even call it a defense. Basically, his points are:

  1. The oil industry is subsidized.
  2. The Interstate system is subsidized.
  3. High-speed rail will create make-work jobs.

On the first point, getting rid of subsidies to the oil industry — and to all industries — would be great. But I fail to see how one existing subsidy justifies creating another.

On the second point, general revenue funds do indeed flow into the Interstate system. However, this is largely due to the following:

  1. Highway Trust Fund expenditures are mandated by law to be equalized with revenues. The problem is that this relies on a multi-year forecasting of future revenues, which essentially means that Congress is expected to be able to predict future gas prices, economic conditions, etc. Sound absurd? That’s because it is. In reality, Congress turns out be as bad at forecasting future Trust Fund revenues as it is at balancing the budget.
  2. About 20 percent of the federal fuel tax revenue (18.4-cents-per-gallon of gasoline and 24.4-cents-per-gallon of diesel) is diverted to the Highway Trust Fund’s Mass Transit Account, which funds rail and bus transit throughout the country. These two excise taxes are paid nearly 100 percent by highway users, yet only about 80 percent goes back to improve the highway system. Is that fair?

If Congress and the administration were to get serious about transportation policy — as opposed to pushing for style-over-substance projects that pander to rent-seeking corporations and ignorant environmentalists — this problem could be solved. Allowing federal funds to be used to toll Interstate segments could also help alleviate funding problems by allowing for more efficient demand-based revenue capture.

On the third point, who the hell cares?! The United States would probably be better off using the ARRA “stimulus” funds to pay thousands of people to dig one hole and then fill another. At least then future generations would be spared from having to keep these trains to nowhere on government life support for perpetuity.

And I’m surprised (not really) that someone from TreeHugger would have ignored the serious environmental concerns that many in the transportation community have long raised. See this paper, for example. High-speed rail will only result in net environmental benefits, such as greenhouse gas emissions reductions per passenger kilometer traveled, if the power sources for the electrified rail are clean (i.e., expensive and relatively undeployed; e.g., wind and solar) and if the trains travel at nearly full capacity. I wouldn’t hold your breath for either of those things becoming true.