High-speed Rail Versus Harvard Economist

Over at The New York Times' Economix blog, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser is trying to model the costs and benefits of building a...

Over at The New York Times' Economix blog, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser is trying to model the costs and benefits of building a hypothetical high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas. In three separate posts he looks at the costs of building and maintaining the line and the direct benefits to consumers, the environmental benefits of rail, and the potential for rail to reshape our cities.

And if you were really looking forward to that sleek, speedy bullet train, there's bad news: Glaeser says the numbers don't add up. In his analysis, once you tally everything up, rail suffers from a $401 million to $524 million net annual loss and adds to suburban sprawl by facilitating commuting.

You say you still just like rail better? Sorry, your preferences are already in his formula: He estimates the superior comfort of rail travel as being worth $20 to you. As an economist, he's trying to be comprehensive and reduce every factor to a dollar amount.

I haven't tried to break down the numbers myself, but there are lots of thoughtful objections to Glaeser's analysis in the comments at the NYT. My suspicion is that benefits of high-speed rail would vary pretty widely depending on the specific project, and that Glaeser is underestimating the feedback loops that might get triggered as rail makes car-free cities more feasible, which in turn raises demand for better alternative transportation options.

You can read his entire four-round bout with high-speed rail here.

Photo from Flickr user Justin Cozart (cc).
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