Kyle Wingfield: High-speed rail talk won't slow down

Kyle Wingfield

“The nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth,” Ronald Reagan famously quipped, is a government bureau — or, we might add, government program. Should you doubt that maxim, I’m here to report your government is still studying high-speed rail between Atlanta and Charlotte.

You may recall this discussion from the early days of the Obama administration, which imagined a national system of such trains. But the proposal for a Southeast High Speed Rail network actually dates to 1992, with the Atlanta-Charlotte segment added in 1998.

A lot has changed in 21 years. Automakers are gradually introducing the features needed for cars to drive themselves. Real (inflation-adjusted) gasoline prices are up nearly a dollar a gallon since 1998 — the low-water mark in government data going back to the Hoover presidency — but they have been substantially higher in the past.

Air travel, too, is cheaper. The real average domestic airfare out of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport last year was 28% lower than in 1998. Real airfares were 40% lower for Charlotte’s airport.

What we have not seen since 1998 is a groundswell of public support for spending billions of tax dollars on a higher-speed version of Amtrak. Or, for that matter, other routes crossing various parts of Georgia.

Yet, earlier this fall, the Georgia Department of Transportation dutifully reported an analysis of three preferred routes between the two cities. It’s another government program that, once set in motion, keeps chugging down the tracks.

The analysis finds one potential route could cost more than $2 billion and yield a trip time between 4:35 and 5:34. Amtrak’s current Crescent service from Charlotte to Atlanta takes — wait for it — 5:28.

The second route studied would take less than three hours, but cost more than $13 billion. The third, the only one of the three that would also run through Athens, might have a trip time as short as 2:06, at a cost of more than $6 billion.

Where things get interesting — to put it politely — is in the ridership and revenue figures. The two routes that would actually be faster than the Crescent assume annual ridership of up to 6.3 million by 2050, yielding operating surpluses as large as $263.9 million.

For context, Amtrak in its 2018 budget year reported total ridership on the entire Crescent route, which stretches from New York City to New Orleans, was just under 275,000. It also reported “record operating earnings” from all routes and services of minus-$168 million. That’s right: Losing $168 million represented Amtrak’s best showing to date.

I’ll let you decide if the projections for the new service seem overly rosy by comparison. But first, a few considerations about taking a train, not a plane or an automobile.

Driving between the proposed routes’ end-points takes about four hours. But that’s the entire trip; there’s no traveling first from one’s home to the train station, no parking and navigating the station, no going from the arrival station to one’s actual destination. All of that could easily add an hour to an advertised train trip time of two to three hours. Driving also offers more flexibility of schedule and more mobility in the arrival city. As automobiles become more autonomous, particularly since it would likely take a decade or longer to build a new rail route, the strain of driving should also ease.

Then there’s flying. A web search shows 20 nonstop flights daily, each way, between Atlanta and Charlotte, with trip times of about 1:15. Even if we add two hours to get to the airport, get through security and exit on the other end, we’re talking about a trip that’s still competitive with high-speed rail in terms of trip time, trip frequency and even cost. And it doesn’t require spending billions on additional infrastructure.

Technology is only moving further away from rail as a viable passenger mode for the future. But as Reagan warned, that’s no reason to believe government will ever stop talking about it.

Dalton native Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation (www.georgiapolicy.org).

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