Letter to the Editor: International public transit would fail in America due to culture and cost

Levi William Fiske, Class of 2013

I am writing in response to senior columnist David Myers' Nov. 10 article, "Transportation in America can't compare to systems abroad." David, a friend of mine, is correct: public mass transit in America is not comparable to the systems in countries like Japan, France and Germany.

Mr. Myers conveniently forgets, however, that the United States in general is not comparable to those countries. There's a lot more to building public transit – particularly high-speed rail – than throwing money at it while pointing and saying, "Look mommy, shiny twains!"

First of all, there is the sheer cost and time of such projects to take under consideration. California's "bullet train" project is projected to cost, after inflation, $98.5 billion. That's more than triple the estimate of $33.6 billion voters were told when they approved the project. By comparison, California's total state budget this year was just under $86 billion. In addition, the trains aren't scheduled to be up and running until 2033 and that date is dependent on the state finding the remaining 90 percent of funds to complete the project.

Secondly, the countries that have successful high-speed rail all have a couple of things in common: they are population-dense and have small land areas. Take Germany, for example. Imagine shoehorning the populations of New York State, California and Texas into Montana. Yes, that's Germany. Countries like Germany have virtually no choice on things like high-speed rail because they simply cannot build an automotive infrastructure that would be cost-effective.

What's more, each of Germany's major metropolitan areas has intricate mass transit that makes arterial connections between each city even more feasible. In most U.S. cities, once you've arrived you need to either rent a car or empty your wallet on cab fare. High-speed rail is not an "If you build it, they will come" idea for America; most Americans would rather take their own car if they're going to have to drive around a city quite a bit. Spending billions on a large project for which there is no public demand and offers a mode of transportation that is slower and often marginally less expensive than flying is the epitome of stupid.

It's easy to sit back and pretend that high-speed rail would work in America because it works in other places. There are, however, very limited applications in this country where it may work. Given what Amtrak has already taught us, wasting time or money on such a project would be silly.