Gabriel Roth Debunks Government Transit Subsidies



With President Obama’s new proposal for a massive, new federal plan for $53 billion in pork subsidies for high-speed rail, Independent Institute Research Fellow Gabriel Roth recently participated in a forum on public transit sponsored by the Mobility Choice Coalition. At the event, Bill Lind, director of the Center for Public Transportation affiliated with American Conservative magazine, pushed for government subsidies for rail transportation. But as reported by DC.STREETSBLOG.org, “Lind met his match in the form of Gabe Roth, a conservative transportation economist from the Independent Institute.”

“We love train travel but not the costs,” Roth said. The cheapest Amtrak fare from Washington, D.C. to New York that he could find on a given day was $76 one way; $139 for a higher-speed Acela. But there are multiple bus companies competing to give you a seat for under $20—and without a public subsidy.

Part of the problem, Roth contends, is that there’s not enough competition in rail. Railroads don’t carry competing rail companies’ trains, whereas highways don’t pick favorites among bus carriers.

But more importantly, Roth said, rail requires its own dedicated right of way and can’t be packed as full as a freeway. “A high-speed train requires miles of empty track in front of it because a steel wheel on a steel rail cannot stop quickly,” he said. “But you can have buses every 10 seconds on the road and you would not think that road is over-crowded.”

Even Lind acknowledges that “high-speed rail is killing us.” It’s “icing without a cake,” he said. “What we need is a much denser network of intercity buses and passenger trains so you can go from anywhere in America to anywhere else in America without flying, without driving, where the buses feed the trains.”

“Buses have to be more than just a feeder network to a rail vision that’s 20 to 50 years and hundreds of billions of dollars away,” said Hoff of the ABA.

Anne Canby of the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership took some of the heatedness out of the debate with these words of wisdom: “There are very different markets. I have a grandchild who takes the bus wherever she goes. I take the train.”

Both/and, not either/or. Now, people, was that so hard?

Mr. Roth is editor of the Independent Institute’s award-winning book, Street Smart: Competition, Entrepreneurship, and the Future of Roads.

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