Jens 'n' Frens
Idle thoughts of a relatively libertarian Republican in Cambridge, MA, and whomever he invites. Mostly political.

"A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures."
  -- Daniel Webster

Tuesday, January 25, 2011 :::

Using metropolitan area populations from Wikipedia's 2009 census data (the actual census data might have been easier) and an estimate of the total US population of 310 million, I calculate that getting high speed rail to 80% of Americans (their metropolitan areas, anyway) would require at least 281 stations. The smallest MSA that would be included would be Valdosta, GA, with a population of 135,804.

Presumably, an actual high-speed rail network designed to reach 80% of Americans would skip some metropolitan areas with more than 136,000 people and reach some Americans in smaller MSAs or outside of MSAs; I think a planner would be more likely to minimize miles of track than number of stations, but I don't really have time to attempt a weighted traveling salesman minimum spanning problem. Maybe it wouldn't even have to be a single network, but I don't think more than a handful of pieces (high-speed rails to nowhere) would be in the spirit of Obama's goal for 2036. If you want a single data point to represent how much of the country has to be covered, and you want it with less than 20 minutes of work, I think Valdosta will do.

Can we get all urban areas larger than Valdosta connected to high speed rail by 2036? I don't think there's any doubt that we can. As my college buddies used to say, we could also staple bagels to our foreheads.

So, should we? Will it make economic sense to do so? I doubt it, but I don't know; actually, I'd be skeptical of anyone who tells me that he does know. Instead of trying to plan 25 years out, let's focus on the routes that do make sense and see how technology and society develop. I don't know whether, for example, Phoenix to Las Vegas to Los Angeles makes sense, but I find it plausible; it may even be compelling enough to justify Keloing some right-of-way. The Northeast corridor would probably make sense if you can find the right-of-way without tripping over the train from Bridgeport to Penn Station or whatever. But, as usual, I don't think grand plans for the next 25 years make a lot of sense, especially for a project like this where gradualism is entirely feasible.

One last point: as my reference to Kelo was meant to hint at, I don't see any reason any level of government needs to be involved other than the need to acquire right-of-way for some of these projects. The need to acquire a straight path from Las Vegas to Los Angeles strikes me as a more compelling reason for nationalizing property than the need to acquiring a particular lot for Pfizer does. But this shouldn't be done if it can't be done profitably (I don't think eminent domain should be used if it's a close call). Very little of Amtrak is profitable. If this is only because highways are being subsidized, perhaps that issue should be addressed first. It's not clear to me that there is a reason for either gasoline taxes or highway funds to exist at the federal level; if the market is distorted by improper subsidies, other subsidies are not the most direct solution.

UPDATE: No, it's not a traveling salesman problem I'd want to solve. It's still not something I have time for.

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::: posted by Steven at 11:18 PM

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Idle thoughts of a relatively libertarian Republican in Cambridge, MA, and whomever he invites. Mostly political.

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