OPB & High Speed Rail

I was on OPB’s Think Out Loud this morning talking about high speed rail. Big thanks to OPB for featuring this important topic. I had three short opportunities to comment, during which I made the following points...

David Rosenfeld

I was on OPB’s Think Out Loud this morning talking about high speed rail, along with several other interesting folks, including Betsy Imholt from ODOT’s Rail Division, Bruce Agnew of the Cascadia Center, and John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute. Big thanks to OPB for featuring this important topic.

I had three short opportunities to comment, during which I made the following points:

1. High speed rail is one important way to tackle some of Oregon’s top transportation challenges: the specter of $5 gallon gas or more; the I-5 congestion from one million additional Willamette Valley residents by 2035; the national security risk from our addiction to foreign oil, most of which fuels our cars and trucks.

2. We should use common sense, not ideology, to determine how best to finance faster trains in Oregon (and all transit for that matter). My co-guest from Cascade Policy Center argued that transit ought to be entirely privately run, and if it can’t support itself, that’s the market as it should be. I pointed out that the vast, vast majority of our transportation infrastructure is already publically financed, especially roads. The gas tax only covers half of the cost of maintaining our highways and the rest is subsidized from other tax dollars. The larger point is that there is a role for both taxpayers and private investors in making better rail service a reality. (In fact, one of the reasons why Florida Governor Rick Scott’s decision to turn down high speed rail funding is so stupid is that a huge portion of the plan was set to be privately financed anyways)

Other points I would have made, given the opportunity:
3. We miss the point by obsessing over whether Oregon will have “true” high-speed rail  (i.e. 200 MPH bullet trains) or something slower. Preliminary studies by our state’s transportation officials conclude that even relatively modest, incremental improvements to the reliability, frequency, and speed of our existing Portland-Eugene rail corridor could achieve remarkable ridership levels that would divert car traffic off I-5, alleviating both congestion and wear and tear on the highway for commuters and businesses alike, and giving commuters a truly affordable choice. By modest, I mean going from two to six trains daily, from 65% to 95% on-time performance, and from 2 and a half hours to just under 2 hours.

ODOT estimates that spending between $2-3B on these improvements would triple ridership from 125K now to 425K, and could save up to $20B in the long-term cost of maintaining and widening I-5, avoided highway accidents, etc.

Given these potential benefits, who cares whether or not the thing is “true” high speed rail or not? This would be a damn good deal for little old Oregon.

4. Rail is already a great deal for consumers. Using AAA’s 2009 report on driving costs, I figured out that driving a compact car from Portland to Eugene that does about 10,000 miles/year at 30 miles/gallon costs about $70 round trip:

Gas:                 $3.20/gallon x 220 mi =   $23.45

Maintainance:    $.0426/mile x 220 mi =    $9.37

Depreciation:     $.15/mile x 220 mi =       $35.60

Tire wear:          $.0061/mile x 220 mi =    $1.30



Compare that to a $48 round trip Amtrak Cascades ticket + $8 for various bus trips within the city = $56.

This doesn’t include the four hours of productivity I gained by working on the train; the forgone wear & tear on the I-5 (thank me later); and the extra time I saved for some business by not getting in their truck’s way on the highway (thank me later).

Imagine what a great deal this becomes with frequent, reliable and faster service, even with a more expensive ticket!

I could have gone on about how public transit is cheaper for consumers than driving. Residents of transit-dense areas of Portland pay only 14% of their annual income to transit costs, as compared to 21.5% in the Portland Metro area, and 28% for Ashland-Medford residents.

I could have pointed out that public transit projects create more jobs than road projects, and that in the first ten months of the stimulus, $1B spent on public transit projects created over 16,000 job months as compared to just 8,700 jobs months for similar road spending.

I could have gone on about study after study from around the world showing that good inter-city rail service creates jobs, boosts property values, economic development, reduces traffic and curbs oil dependence.

This is exciting stuff. Oregon has been behind for many years, but this is our chance to get ready for our future. Oregon is in the middle of a major process to pin down specific plans for passenger and freight rail. We have some big choices to make about the best passenger rail corridor alignment, service levels, and timeline. Our state’s officials and business leaders are in the process of thinking through the best business plan for the corridor, including some mix of public funding mechanisms and private partnerships.

Join the party, it’s going to be interesting and fun.



David Rosenfeld