February 23rd, 2009

Here’s a map of the November election results on which I’ve drawn in shaky freehand the “high speed rail corridors” that will be competing for the mere $8bn funding in the stimulus package.

Election&rail map.jpg

Original rail map here; NY Times political map here. Blue counties voted Democratic, pink Republican. The Transportation Department’s definition of “high speed” is 110mph (175 kph), not the 300 kph of a new line, so we are probably mostly talking about upgrades. The Las Vegas line of Republican mythmaking isn’t on the Bush-era list, but it can still bid for funds.

As you can see the drawing was mostly an exercise in connecting blue dots. The main beneficiaries of rail investment will be Democratic city voters. Fair enough. But several possible rail lines also go through, and would benefit, smaller pink towns that can be swung. If I were David Axelrod, I’d be pushing Chicago-Cincinatti-Cleveland and Raleigh-Atlanta-New Orleans-Houston rather than the NE corridor and California.

If you take the map of the counties that swung in McCain’s favour – the Appalachia and Deep South of poor whites – there’s hardly anything for them: only the long-shot Texas-Arkansas line.

US election swings.jpg

For public policy, it’s understandable if tut-tut to reward supporters, especially swing ones. That’s why Mitterand built the TGV Atlantique while forgetting loyally lefty Lorraine and solidly conservative Alsace. But even to a disinterested Benthamite dictator, it’s far less obvious whether to go for the highest economic return by connecting rich cities, or to use it as a lifeline for backward regions. Felipe Gonzalez built Spain’s first high-speed line from Madrid not to Barcelona, the economic capital, but to Seville – where he came from. Seville’s a major city, this wasn’t a bridge to nowhere, and Andalusia was then and remains poorer than Catalonia. Was this the wrong call?

Rail lines from Little Rock to Pittsburgh, or Louisville to Atlanta, would never pay. But then what else can the federal government do for Appalachia? Let it wither, depopulate and die? The Obama Administration needs its own version of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Spending less money on ultrafast broadband and distance learning might be a better idea.

Postscript: what’s the Catalan for Schadenfreude? (below the jump)

I’m usually a none-too-critical booster for European high-speed rail and embarrassed by British dithering. But this item might reduce the envy quotient. The rail tunnel under the Pyrenees is finished! and was handed over last week! But the bi-national build-and-operate consortium have issued no press releases. The party at Perpignan’s shiny new TGV station just north of the border was low-key. The contractors’ managers avoided the photo-op and ducked questions with “no comments”. They are in fact spending a lot of quality time with their lawyers, working up a demand for massive compensation. For the 44km of line, built at a cost of over a billion euros, designed for freight as well as TGVs, ends like this outside the small Catalan town of Figueres.

AVE Figueras.jpg

The rest of the line to Barcelona is three years late; maybe even six. There won’t even be a spur line to join up to the old track temporarily before 2010 – a costly fudge anyway given the the gauge difference.

Things do go wrong on big engineering projects. Some of the delay here comes from a strange routing choice in Barcelona: tunneling expensively and riskily under the Sagrada Familia rather than bypassing the city through the valley to the north, a dreary light-industrial slum stuffed with easily movable factories. (Map here, p.186.) I suppose this results from a combination of pork and grandstanding regional politics: ˇwe’re a capital!

It’s also true that the construction contracts created very different incentives. The Pyrenean tunnel was build-and-operate, the rest conventional fixed-fee.

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