In a recent policy analysis, "Intercity Buses: The Forgotten Mode," Cato Institute transportation analyst Randal O'Toole hails the rise of intercity passenger bus service, and recommends several reforms to promote these services. Among his recommendations are the immediate cessation of funding for Amtrak and the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program. This assertion reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the strengths and value of passenger rail. Intercity buses and passenger rail should be seen as complementary services in a balanced transportation network, not as mutually exclusive alternatives. In making his case, O'Toole alleges that intercity buses require almost no public subsidies, and are safer than passenger rail. These claims are unproven at best and flatly incorrect at worst, and we shall address them in turn, but at the heart of the matter is O'Toole's flawed premise that transportation policy should reflect the needs of only the present, with no consideration to the future.
In championing buses as an alternative to intercity passenger rail, O'Toole neglects to address one of the most powerful arguments for rail: providing an alternative to highway congestion. While using a bus instead of an automobile may intuitively seem to ease congestion by reducing individual car trips and leaving more road space for other highway users, planners have known for decades that providing additional road space does not solve congestion; in fact it creates additional demand for driving. Indeed, despitepublic spending of $2.8 trillion on highways between 1982 and 2008, congestion only worsened during that period, with average time wasted in traffic increasing 340 percent to 34 hours per year.
Intercity bus services run along highways, and are therefore subject to the same traffic jams that plague our automobiles. However, one railway with a single track in each direction has the capacity to transport as many people per hour as sixteen lanes of highway. Even if endlessly adding new lanes did work to curb congestion, our urban areas that struggle most with congestion simply do not have the space to build enough new highways to meet demand. Despite advances in traffic control and operations, highway congestion is predicted to get worse, not better, over the next few decades.
High-speed trains allow passengers to bypass this congestion, bringing passengers directly into center cities. In addition to their ability to move greater numbers of people than highways at higher speeds, well-managed high-speed rail networks can also deliver reliable service even while accommodating growing numbers of riders. For example, after introducing high-speed rail in 1992, Spain saw rail ridership rise from 16 to 51 percent of all trips (including car, bus, airplane, and rail) between Madrid and Seville, roughly the same distance as Boston to Philadelphia. Despite this tremendous growth in ridership, these trains are so reliable that passengers receive a full refund if their train is more than 5 minutes late. With traffic jams getting more frequent and more severe, our highways cannot be relied on for this caliber of on-time performance. High-speed rail is the most efficient way to provide new capacity for intercity travel, and adds a layer of redundancy and reliability that highways and airports cannot match.
O'Toole claims that intercity buses are far safer than rail, calculating that bus services see only 0.3 fatalities per billion passenger-miles to Amtrak's 1.4 fatalities per billion passenger miles. However, these figures drastically overstate the number of bus passenger miles traveled while minimizing the number of bus fatalities incurred to arrive at an incorrectly low fatality rate.
Complicating this picture is the absence of a universal definition of "intercity bus." The source O'Toole cites for intercity bus fatalities uses the relatively narrow definition provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which considers only those buses making cross country or intercity journeys. Even this modest figure is known to severely undercount the number of fatalities incurred by this small category of buses. To count passenger miles, O'Toole uses the American Bus Association's 2005 Motorcoach Census, which counts passenger-miles logged by intracity airport shuttles, sightseeing tours, and private commuter buses, amongst other categories that are not making cross country or intercity trips. The Motorcoach Census even counts miles logged by Canadian buses, an obvious discrepancy as Canadian fatalities are not counted. Canadian buses account for nearly a fifth of all buses in North America and an unknown number of passenger-miles, seriously skewing the statistics.
Due to the varying definitions used by different sources, it is difficult to determine exactly what the safety rate of intercity buses should be. The only major source that reliably counts both passenger miles and fatalities is the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The BTS does not provide statistics for intercity buses specifically, but we do know that any bus providing scheduled intercity service will have to travel along highways. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, from 1999 - 2008, the fatality rate for all vehicles on highways was 9.6 deaths per billion passenger miles (Tables 2-1 and 1-40). Buses may well be safer than other highway users such as private automobiles, but O'Toole's figures claim buses are 32 times safer than other highway users.
O'Toole takes the opposite track in determining passenger rail's safety - artificially shrinking the number of passenger miles while inflating fatalities to result in an artificially high fatality rate. O'Toole counts passenger miles only for Amtrak trains, while counting fatalities for all passenger trains, including commuter rail. This is probably because the Bureau of Transportation Statistics itself counts passenger miles only for Amtrak, but records fatalities for all passenger trains. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials puts Amtrak's actual safety record at 0.4 fatalities per billion passenger miles between 1980 and 2010.
O'Toole's main complaint about trains is that they are heavily subsidized. It is true that like all other forms of transportation, including intercity buses, rail is subsidized. According to the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts' SubsidyScope program, passenger rail received direct expenditure subsidies of nearly $2.4 billion between 2000 and 2009. This subsidy would have been greater, but Amtrak's profitable Acela Express service generates enough revenue to support other lines, bringing in over $100 million in annual net revenue for both 2009 and 2010. This highly profitable service is exactly what Mr. O'Toole urges Americans not to build in his policy analysis.
While $2.4 billion over ten years seems like a substantial sum, it pales in comparison to public spending on highways. O'Toole has defended highway spending by claiming that the highway system is paid for by users: since drivers pay the gas tax, highway tolls, and taxes on tires, they're paying their own way and are not being subsidized, the argument goes. However, these user fees only cover about half of all highway spending, and this percentage has been falling steadily for years. Some revenue from the gas tax has been diverted to other programs, but even if all gas tax dollars went to highways, user fees would still make up only 65 percent of all highway spending. The remainder is left to be paid for by general taxation, and the resulting subsidy is massive. Recently, the Highway Trust Fund has received bailouts of $8 billion in 2008, $7 billion in 2009, and $20 billion in 2010. All told, according to SubsidyScope, from 2000 to 2009 the difference between what the government spent on highways and what it received in user fees amounted to a subsidy of over $360 billion.
One might think that since highways transport more people, spending over 150 times more public money on highways than railroads is appropriate. But more people use the highway because it receives so much more funding, not the other way around. If the U.S. had spent $360 billion on passenger rail and only $2.4 billion on highways in the last ten years, the ridership numbers would likely be reversed. The fact is that no mode of transportation fully pays for itself.
Intercity buses provide a valuable service and are an important part of a complete and balanced transportation system. O'Toole makes several excellent suggestions for fostering a thriving bus system, including pricing city curb space at market rates. However, one of his central recommendations is to "end subsidies to Amtrak and spend no more money on high-speed rail." As we have seen, this recommendation is based on false premises and fails to account for the needs of the future. O'Toole would set buses and trains against each other as mutually exclusive paths, when in reality the services provide very different and complementary benefits. Buses provide a flexible and affordable transportation option, but they remain constrained by the limitations of the highway system - notably, congestion. High-speed trains provide a 21st century solution to the congestion and capacity constraints on our highways and airport runways, enhancing mobility and powering regional economies well into the future.