Anyone in a hurry to get to the Jersey City, N.J., Fourth of July fireworks display last week, and lamenting the lack of high-speed rail to get there, needn’t have worried. The city canceled its fireworks event, as it turns out, because the $238,000 cost was more than its budget would bear.
You need not have pined for Independence Day festivities in Ridgefield, N.J., Glendale, Ariz., or Redwood City, Calif., either, because those communities also could not afford the bombs bursting in air.
None of those cities have high-speed rail service, either, but if you believe the U.S. Conference of Mayors, that might be just the ticket toward solving their budget woes. If the reasoning sounds a bit fuzzy, it’s only because we’re still dizzy here trying to understand the reasoning behind the group’s ode released last month to the benefits of high-speed rail.
Termed a research project, the report, called “The Economic Impacts of High-Speed Rail on Cities and Their Metropolitan Areas,” joins a growing debate over the future of transportation in the United States. Although that debate focuses most on passenger transportation, the investment and infrastructure demands concern any business tied to the movement of goods.
Freight railroads, with their networks linked closely to any plans for high-speed rail, certainly understand that. Ports already see the link to their business through the emphasis on intermodal transportation, and the trucking industry remains concerned about the diversion of highway tax revenue.
There is, in fact, a strong case for improved rail infrastructure, including public transit improvement that lures commuters from congested roads, and for high-speed rail service in the corridors with the density and the demand to support the investment.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Conference of Mayors report only serves to support the criticism that the Obama administration’s attention to high-speed rail is out of scale to the needs of the country and, more significantly, to financial reality.
Just look at the cover, where it notes the report is “sponsored by Siemens.” That’s why you’ll find inside such vapid conclusions as, “Jobs, wages, business sales and value-added will significantly increase with the introduction of high-speed rail services.”
Maybe they will, in the right places at the right times. But what the report doesn’t get around to is what really should concern everyone with a stake in transportation: How do you pay for this?
The report describes many benefits: Chicago would see $42 million to $50 million in annual spending by new visitors. But they would be coming to a state that faces a $12 billion deficit, nearly half the size of Illinois’ entire budget.
Los Angeles supposedly would see $360 million in annual spending from new visitors. And it would look for the investment while coping with a state school network that has seen the number of school systems “unable to meet future financial obligations” grow 38 percent since the start of this year, according to a state education board report.
The mayors’ report can serve one purpose: With states and cities nationwide struggling to fill their most basic needs on tight budgets these days, it’s a reminder that transportation companies should be watching closely where their taxes are being spent.