Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ticket to Ride

Leave it to us - we're professionals.

As we’ve previously written, not everyone is happy with the stimulus, and that includes us at VomPolitik. There are serious questions about whether it is large enough, whether the mix of spending and tax cuts is appropriate, and whether the Democratic majority should have rammed a left-of-center partisan plan down the throats of recalcitrant Republicans. That’s not why we’re unhappy, though. After years of trying to see the big picture, we’ve decided to take a vacation and become that most dreaded of political animals, the Single Issue Voter. And what is our Single Issue? High-speed rail.

Marcus and I have been obsessing over high-speed rail for years. We’d like to pretend that it’s because building high-speed rail would create jobs, hasten commerce, and provide cleaner competition to air travel. All of those are true, and there are other arguments as well, but that’s not why we, in particular, want it. We just really like trains. And the $9 billion in the stimulus package for high-speed rail won’t buy us nearly enough. In fact, it’s so little it disgusts us and fills us with loathing.

Let us assume, though, that our more sophisticated readers have taken a more nuanced view and decided to make national transportation policy decisions for reasons other than personal inclination, finding, for argument’s sake, the environmental justification persuasive. What would it take to build a national, high-speed rail network?

Marcus and I have drawn up plans for what amounts to a Circle Line for the United States, with the following main lines (all with stops at convenient cities): Boston to Miami; Chicago to San Francisco; Seattle to Los Angeles; and Los Angeles to Miami via Phoenix, Dallas, etc., with the lines connecting at their nearest points (Boston-Miami connects to the Chicago line via a New York-Chicago run, for example), laying 9,700 miles of track in all.

At an average speed of 200mph (slower than records set by European and Asian high-speed lines but better than the Acela’s current 150mph), this would allow travelers to get from Boston to Miami in seven and a half hours (only one or two hours more than the flying process); the entire circuit could be concluded in slightly over two days, with the longest stretch being Boston-Seattle, at 20 hours. Readers will note that this is significantly longer than it takes to fly, an inconvenience to be balanced by the lower ticket prices and greater comfort of the train (tickets being cheaper because of the train’s far greater passenger capacity).

And what, you might ask, is the price tag of this wondrous system that will allow us to travel from one end of the country to another at speed and in comfort? Estimates on cost per mile vary, but a fair figure is between $40 million and $80 million per mile, which we average at $60 million. $60 million for 9,700 miles of track means that it will cost a scant $582 billion to build a nation-wide, high-speed rail network. Worth every penny, in our view. All aboard!

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