Saturday, July 11th, 2009
Glaeser Disses the Midwest
Harvard economist Ed Glaeser had an op-ed in the Boston Globe where he suggests killing any funding for high speed rail in the heartland and directing the money instead to the east coast – and not surprisingly into Boston metro transit projects.
First, there is no doubt that the Northeast Corridor should be the number one priority for high speed rail. The Acela lines need further investment. I agree on that point.
However, Glaeser uses some dubious statistics to imply the superiority of Boston as a destination for transit investment. He notes that, for example, 70% of employment in Chicago is more than 10 miles from the city center, while in Boston that is 48%. This is an odd metric to be sure. IIRC a recent Brookings study on “job sprawl” used this measure, so that may be where he took it from. But that metric is irrelevant. For example, I’d speculate that over 90% of Anderson, Indiana’s employment is within 10 miles of the city center. (It is a one county MSA). That doesn’t make it a great fit for massive transit investments.
The best metric to look at for transit addressable market for jobs is central business district employment. I don’t have the numbers handy, nor the leisure to track down zip code data, so let’s use office space as a proxy. According to a Cushman-Wakefield report, Chicago’s CBD has 118 million square feet of office space vs. only 59 million in Boston. Chicago’s core is double the size of Boston. By Glaeser’s logic, we should be redirecting funds from Boston to Chicago where they will do more good.
The Northeast has its “Big Four” metros: NYC, Boston, DC, and Philly. But the Midwest has Chicago – America’s third largest metro area (and one that dwarf’s Boston in size, by the way) – Detroit (the same size as Boston), and eight other metro areas with over one million people. It’s the second largest and most dense region of the country. Its geography and city sizes compare well to France, which has an effective high speed network, and where, outside of historic cores, most cities are sprawlburgs. (France is the land of hypermarket giant Carrefour don’t forget).
As someone point out, Glaeser completely avoids criticizing investments on the West Coast, even though it has only a handful of large cities, and ones that sprawl ridiculously at that, along with vast nearly empty tracts between them. He appears to have all the attitude towards flyover country one would expect of the East Coast elite.
He also talks about high speed rail disparagingly as a commuter system. “For most workers in America’s sprawling metropolitan areas, no train is going to drop them within walking distance of their home or job.” Even less so an airplane, but I didn’t hear him suggest we stop investing in airports, or say that the percentage of jobs within 10 miles of the city center has anything to do with air travel.
If Massachusetts decided to spend $20 billion or so on the Big Dig instead of mass transit, that’s their choice. But I don’t know why Boston would expect the rest of the country to give up their share of the pie in order to bail out the MBTA.
I’m actually a Glaeser fan and totally with him that transportation spending is driven by politics, not rational investment policy. That’s clearly one of the biggest problems with all public-sector investments. And, with a nod to my commenter OINKER, there is definitely a case to be made against high speed rail on cost/benefit or other grounds. I just didn’t see Glaeser make it.
Chicago-St. Louis Real High Speed Rail Study
The Midwest High Speed Rail Association sponsored a feasibility study of what a real, European style high speed rail line between Chicago and St. Louis would look like and if it was possible to build. You can see coverage in the Chicago Tribune or read the full report.
What would the system look like? It would feature a largely separate ROW with European style trainsets operating at 220MPH, leading to a 2 hour journey between Chicago and St. Louis. The price tag is estimated at a whopping $11.5 billion, including significant contingency.
A couple of interesting things jumped out at me around the study. First is that it contrasted both today’s Amtrak and the proposed 110MPH system with actual commercial rail service as provided in the 1930’s. Even in the 110MPH scenario, travel times are not appreciably different from the 30’s, which should give you an idea of how non-transformational that idea is.
The second is that they studied the use of the IC/CN corridor along the lakefront that I had previously advocated as the preferred high speed rail corridor into Chicago. If you’ve ever seen that Illinois Central right of way, it is gigantic. The study confirmed that you could build two exclusive high speed mains in the ROW. That gives you a straight shot into downtown Chicago from the south that is already grade separated.
This study did envision Chicago Union Station as the terminus. I believe most HSR traffic will be O&D traffic to Chicago, not people transferring to another train. Thus a single high speed hub is not necessary. I would rather see a new high speed terminal built at Van Buren St. Station. In any case, this study provided further ammo for preserving the St. Charles Air Line that links the IC to Union Station.
This is the first time anyone has really taken a real look at real high speed rail for the Midwest. The price tag is steep, no doubt. But it interesting to see what the realistic options are.
Thanks to Alon Levy who sent me some of the information used in this post.