Megan McArdle is answering questions by request from her readers; returning to a theme near and dear to Prof. Karlson’s heart, she again addresses why passenger rail sucks in the U.S.:
I am about to blame—you will perhaps be unsurprised—the government. Why isn’t there a high speed train from New York to Chicago? Well, first of all, this would greatly anger legislators from New York and Michigan, who like the fact that the Chicago train must pass through Buffalo and Detroit, even if this assures that almost no one with a job will actually use it.
There’s also the problem of the Federal construction process. The high speed train between DC and Charlotte was first conceived in the early 1990s. The EIS for this project will be completed probably sometime in 2010. Then we have to get final legislative authority. Then we have to put out the project for bids. By the time the thing is actually built, we’ll probably all have evolved an extra leg and be able to run faster than the high speed train.
Neither of these things are true of government in general. As a couple of her commenters point out, Japan and, to a lesser extent, Germany (where things are more of a work-in-progress) have managed to create impressive high-speed rail systems, as has (of course) France.
It’s in the Anglo-American countries where high-speed rail has hit a roadblock. The United States in particular has the ideal conditions for low support for efficient HSR: legislators with a great deal of autonomy from their parties and an interest in developing a personal vote through constituency service and pork-barrel spending, a geographically dispersed population, and few potential logrolls that can produce a majority vote in either house for practical HSR schemes. Even voter-initiated schemes in states fall prey to these issues; witness the California High-Speed Rail proposal, which has to promise future HSR access to as many communities as possible to maximize the chances of a funding referendum passing in November.
And, as I’ve pointed out before, the U.S. and Britain have much more stringent environmental review procedures than France and Germany—to say nothing of 1960s Japan, when official LDP policy was to maximize the amount of pork spending diverted to infrastructure companies, environment be damned—which (at best) lead to delays as the potential impacts, real and imagined, of projects are cataloged by the government and consultants and (at worst) allow every interest group and NIMBY under the sun multiple chances to stall the process along the way.
In an entirely different venue, compare the war on plastic bags in China (via Matthew Stinson’s shared items feed) and Laredo. Both situations involve “government,” but government is acting in very different ways. I personally wouldn’t trade our pluralist system for a more centralized one, but there are times the transaction costs associated with the former make one long for the latter.