Every few years, high-speed rail advocates arrive in Georgia and argue for high-speed rail. Supposedly, Atlanta and the state as a whole will not become a world-class destination until high-speed rail is transporting us to Charlotte.
Riding the rails sounds romantic. But once the facts are revealed, the romantic notion is replaced by the cold, hard reality of massive government subsidies.
The latest rail renaissance started with Brightline, a private rail line in South Florida operating on a right-of-way owned by the rail line. The service between Miami and West Palm Beach was designed as a high-end commuter rail line. Brightline planned to expand the line to Orlando with a future line to Tampa. It is too early to evaluate the success of Brightline’s South Florida service but it should be allowed to succeed or fail on its own.
A little over a year ago, however, Brightline’s original mission went off track. The company partnered with Virgin Trains and changed its operating philosophy. No longer could it build its lines with private funds; it needed a major infusion of government subsidies. Gone, too, was the plan to operate service in Florida only. Virgin Trains plans to build lines in California, Texas, the Midwest and in the Southeast between Atlanta and Charlotte.
Late last year, GDOT studied three potential routes for the 280-mile Atlanta-Charlotte corridor, which is estimated to cost $16 billion. For comparison, a 240-mile high-speed line in Texas, originally estimated to cost $10 billion, has risen in price to $20-$25 billion.
Virgin Trains’ “cheaper” option would cost “only” $2.5 billion, but it would be no faster than the existing Amtrak line. That service, the conventional rail Crescent Line between New York and New Orleans, has low ridership and loses $8.3 million per year, fifth most among all Amtrak lines.
Many Georgia residents who visit Paris or Tokyo ask why high-speed rail cannot be duplicated in Georgia. The answer is that development patterns and culture are very different.
Most European and Asian countries build high-speed rail to relieve over-crowding on conventional rail service. Many of the conventional rail lines are profitable and the high-speed rail lines between Paris-Lyon and Tokyo-Osaka are profitable as well. Amtrak’s Southeast service is neither popular nor profitable.
High-speed rail is most successful in areas with limited air service. Commercial airlines operate 20 round-trip flights per day between Atlanta and Charlotte. High-speed rail has proven less successful at reducing traffic congestion. Most folks who drive between regions cannot easily switch to air. They may be traveling to an intermediate destination not served by rail, traveling from suburb to suburb or transporting cargo. Across the world, the highest share of travelers switching from car to high-speed rail is 18%.
High-speed rail needs high-population and high-employment-densities to fill seats. Atlanta and Charlotte have low densities. Atlanta has 70,000 people living within two miles of downtown; Charlotte has 50,000. Atlanta has 90,000 people working within two miles of downtown; Charlotte has 70,000. Contrast that with New York City, with a population density of 520,000, 7-10 times higher, and an employment density of 1.7 million, 20-25 times higher. Some European and Asian cities are considerably denser than New York.
High-speed rail needs a robust rail transit system to funnel passengers to stations. In Atlanta 13% of housing is near rail; in Charlotte it is 5%. For employment, the percentages are 24% and 18%. In New York, 52% of housing and 54% of jobs are accessible by transit. In New York, more than a third of daily commuters use transit. In Atlanta the number is 3.5%; in Charlotte the number is 2.5%.
Finally, in Georgia, car ownership is much higher, gas taxes are lower and parking is more plentiful. Some planners want to change this trend, but it will take many years and make commuting far more expensive.
Overall, subsidies are poor economic policy. Nevertheless, subsidizing some transportation services if there are no alternatives – such as transit for low-income residents to reach jobs – makes sense. There are multiple ways to commute from Atlanta to Charlotte, all with limited or no subsidies: Planes offer the quickest trip, shuttles and buses offer the cheapest trips and cars offer a customized trip. If high-speed rail boosters want to build an expensive train, riders and not taxpayers should pay for it.