Harvard economist Edward Glaeser is skeptical about high-speed rail as an economic stimulus strategy. The Obama administration has laid out a plan for investing in corridors around the country, including the Vancouver, BC to Eugene, OR stretch here in the Pacific Northwest, a route pushed by groups such as the Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center. Indeed, so happy about the president's proposals is Cascadia's executive director Bruce Agnew that he told me recently that Obama is "the best president for rail since Lincoln."
Blogging for the New York Times, Glaeser's own analysis (using a hypothetical link between Dallas and Houston) suggests costs will likely significantly exceed benefits. Another conclusion is that such large undertakings won't have the hoped-for stimulus effect. He writes: "There is an iron rule of infrastructure that it is impossible to build massive projects wisely and quickly. Serious rail projects take years to build, and it is impossible to tell whether that spending will come during a recession or a boom."
High speed rail can stimulate growth, however, especially if it provides access to cheap land. Intermediate stops along high speed rail corridors can bring previously remote communities within the commuter shed. Which causes another problem to rear its head: that high speed rail can actually create more sprawl.
Glaeser also points out that the most extensive study of 30 years of intracity rail in 16 cities (including Washington, DC, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Portland, San Francisco, etc.) suggests that in-city rail can reduce car trips to central business districts (good for the carbon footprint and congestion), but that there's no guarantee that rail lines like Sound Transit's new link light rail in Seattle will generate significantly greater densities. In fact, for rail projects between 1970 and 2000, some cities (e.g. Baltimore, St. Louis) actually saw population and density declines along rail routes because rail itself fails to reverse suburbanization, and in some instances might enable it.
Glaeser suggests this should make us skeptical about the power of rail, intercity and well as intracity, to change broader land use patterns, which many rail proponents argue is its chief benefit. Rail is not necessarily a magnet that reverses suburban sprawl by generating higher urban densities. The costs of making rail work this way are high, the social and economic engineering complex, and the benefits mitigated.