Tomorrow’s Misguided Infrastructure Investments Today

Micheline Maynard’s story today on airline route cutbacks leads with small cities losing air service entirely, but arguably the more important information is in the accompanying table. The combined flight cutbacks at the 10 largest airports losing service (~1,500 monthly flights) add up to just about half the reduction in flights at Chicago O’Hare alone between January ’07 and January ’08.

Now, blowing $61 million on an enlarged runway at Hagerstown, Maryland is undoubtedly a big deal for Hagerstown. At ORD, they’re in the midst of blowing as much as $20 billion on a program to rearrange the airport in the modern fashion with multiple well-spaced parallel runways. Some of this may be justifiable in reducing operational issues in bad weather for the inframarginal flights, but a major justification was accommodating anticipated essentially unlimited growth in flights that someone projected out of past trend under the implicit assumption that cheap aviation, like cheap motoring, would go on forever.

Even half of that $20 billion would amount to an enormous investment in reasonably high-speed rail — Stephen Karlson of Cold Spring Shops argues persuasively that 300 km/h electrified bullet trains shouldn’t be made the enemy of very useful service capable of being implemented without such large investments in fixed capital (see here for some links to his archives). Since short-distance feeder flights congest big airports just about as much as long-distance jumbo jet services that may remain the efficient way to get people across oceans, you could theoretically de-congest hub airports to some degree with a well-planned investment in 180 km/h rail that would be a bargain in comparison to airport megaprojects, and provide more places with real modal choice in ground transportation essentially as a side-effect!

The catch is that doing so requires political will, both for the money and to deal with the need to make some people along the routes unhappy, and advance planning. (E.g. it would take at least a couple years to extend the successful 130 km/h service between Milwaukee and Chicago the eighty miles or so to Madison even if the project were amply funded.) Perfect foresight may be hard to come by, but right now it doesn’t take genius and a time machine to see that people are going to start wanting this stuff yesterday.

Along those lines, the presidential candidates are all somewhat disappointing, as preserving cheap motoring forms the bulk of their transportation policy positions. However, members of the Pigou Club might note that the Obama campaign did at least bother to drop a paragraph in acknowledge that other transportation modes exist, whereas the space program is more important to McCain than Amtrak. (Recall that McCain recently picked up some Common Touch points from the press corps for riding the Acela Express instead of his wife’s jet, but is a long-standing opponent of Amtrak funding.)