The High-Speed Rail Money Sink: Why the United States Should Not Spend Trillions on Obsolete Technology

24 Pages Posted: 21 Apr 2021

Date Written: April 20, 2021

Abstract

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg’s proposal to make the United States a “world leader” in high‐​speed rail would add more than $4 trillion to the federal debt for construction of new rail lines plus tens of billions of dollars of annual deficit spending to subsidize operating costs. In exchange, such a high‐​speed rail network is likely to carry less than 2 percent of the nation’s passenger travel and no freight.

High‐​speed trains were rendered obsolete in 1958, six years before Japan opened its first bullet train, when Boeing’s 707 entered commercial service; the airliner could cruise at more than twice the top speeds of the fastest scheduled high‐​speed trains today. Air travel cost more than rail travel in 1964, but average airfares today are less than a fifth of the average fares paid by riders of the Amtrak Acela, the only high‐​speed train operating in the United States.

The main disadvantage of high‐​speed trains, other than their slow speeds compared with air travel, is that they require a huge amount of infrastructure that must be built and maintained to extremely precise standards. Since the United States is struggling to maintain the infrastructure it already has—particularly its urban rail transit systems and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, which together have more than $200 billion in maintenance backlogs—it makes no sense to build more infrastructure that the nation won’t be able to afford to maintain.

Buttigieg’s proposal is particularly poorly timed considering that the COVID-19 pandemic has made many people question mass transportation in general. One lesson of the pandemic is that the most resilient transportation system we have is motor vehicles and highways. Rather than funding an obsolete system we don’t need, Buttigieg and Congress should find ways to relieve congestion, improve safety, and increase people’s access to jobs and other economic opportunities by improving existing roads and building more highways that could be paid for with user fees.

Keywords: transportation, infrastructure, Pete Buttigieg, high-speed rail network, federal debt, annual deficit, passenger travel, travel, railroad, rail network

JEL Classification: R00, R10, R4, R40, R41, R42, R48, R49, H00, H10, H12, H13, H20

Suggested Citation

Institute, Cato and O'Toole, Randal, The High-Speed Rail Money Sink: Why the United States Should Not Spend Trillions on Obsolete Technology (April 20, 2021). Cato Institute, Policy Analysis No. 915, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3830671

Cato Institute (Contact Author)

Cato Institute ( email )

1000 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20001-5403
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Randal O'Toole

Cato Institute ( email )

1000 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20001-5403
United States

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