Transportation Policy

55 Percent of Americans Want Private Enterprise to Build High Speed Rail

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With states bringing in lower tax revenues, strapped budgets, and increasing transportation usage, governments are looking to partner with private firms to provide transportation improvements and expansions. According to the recent Reason-Rupe poll, 55% of Americans favor these kinds of partnerships. In fact, a majority of all political groups favor government working with private companies to further transportation projects.

Many governments are partnering with private companies to build and expand highways, airports and other infrastructure projects that government might not be able to afford otherwise. Do you favor or oppose these public-private partnerships?

Which statement do you agree with more? Federal and state governments should spend taxpayer money to build and operate high-speed rail systems where they think they are needed; or, Private companies should build and operate high-speed rail systems where they think riders will pay to use them.

When Americans are asked to choose between government and private business building high-speed rail, however, a majority of Americans (55 percent) want private enterprise to build this infrastructure. In contrast, 34 percent believe government should build high-speed rail. Partisan divisions do arise for this issue of high-speed rail: a plurality of Democrats and Occupy Wall Street supporters prefer government build with taxpayer money, however a majority of pure Independents, Tea Party Supporters and Republicans prefer private companies to build these railways.

A partial driver of partisan division may be that if governments were to build high-speed railways, they would build where policymakers think they are needed; in contrast, private businesses would build railways where it is profitable to build—so where a substantial number of riders would pay to use them. In sum, deciding between public or private building of high-speed rail contrasts goals of efficiency and access, and political groups make trade-offs between efficiency and access differently.

If this poll has accurately gauged attitudes toward government or private enterprise building and operating railway infrastructure, this casts doubt on how Amtrak is currently run. Currently, many Amtrak lines operate at a loss because policy makers often choose access to rail lines over efficiency in running the trains, even in areas where there is little demand for train use.

Find full Reason-Rupe Q4 2011 poll results, question wording, and methodology here.

The Reason-Rupe Q4 2011 poll collected a nationally representative sample of 1,200 respondents, aged 18 and older from all 50 states and the District of Columbia using live telephone interviews from December 1-13. Interviews were conducted on both landline and mobile phones. The margin of sampling error for this poll is +/- 3 percent.

Follow Emily Ekins on Twitter @emilyekins