Utah wasn't part of the regional high-speed rail system President Barack Obama targeted with $8 billion in stimulus funds earlier this year, but that hasn't stopped the Utah Transit Authority from getting involved. UTA's trustees have agreed to pay $5,000 a month to join an alliance that includes Las Vegas; Reno, Nev.; Phoenix and Denver — cities hoping to connect with each other using fast trains.
Frankly, it's an idea that deserves shovelfuls of skepticism.
Proponents say the trains would travel between 120 mph and 250 mph, and they would be run by electricity, making them far cleaner than airplanes or automobiles. In some other countries, such trains already are in operation, thanks to government subsidies.
Unfortunately, the clean-and-green argument seldom seems to move the free market, where business travelers demand speed and vacationers keep an eye on expenses. Today, an Amtrak train from Salt Lake City to Denver takes 15 hours and costs about $130 round trip. The same trip on a discount airline costs less than $200 and takes between 80 and 90 minutes. Proponents of high-speed rail say the same trip would take about twice as long as a flight, and skeptics say a ticket would cost about twice the Amtrak fare. But even that fare would be subsidized, and that's the biggest problem with high-speed rail.
For decades now, the federal government has subsidized Amtrak on the belief that it is good for the environment. Indeed, the environment would benefit if everyone who planned to drive or fly decided to take the train instead. And yet the rail service carries a paltry few passengers, even in heavily populated Eastern corridors. Few factors weigh heavier on the minds of travelers than speed and price.
In general, rail works best in places with a high-density population and between cities that aren't too spread apart. As anyone who has driven cross country will attest, most of the United States remains sparsely populated. In the West, cities are spread far apart, separated often by mountain ranges.
UTA has done well to attract funding and build a network of light and heavy rail within the Salt Lake metropolitan area. When that system is built out, it will give many, if not most, residents here a real alternative to driving between key points. But there is no indication that the market demands high-speed rail, or that it will pay extra to ride it, so long as airplanes do the job faster and quicker.
Obama's high-speed rail subsidy is a bad move in any part of the country, but it seems especially foolish in the Mountain West.