Transportation Policy

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


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

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  1. All we need now is for Dagny Taggart to hire Hank Rearden to lay down Reardon Steel rails and build Reardon metal high speed trains. Hopefully Wesley Mouch does not get in the way.

  2. A pollster for a libertarian magazine does not include libertarian as a choice?


    1. And what does ‘Pure Independent’ mean, anyway?
      What would an ‘Impure Independent’ be.

    2. Libertarians oppose central planning and crony capitalism public-private partnerships?

      1. My bullshit alarm starts buzzing every time I hear about the latest “privatization” plan.

        The state having a private company build and operate a railroad/highway/prison/spaceport/whatever is not the same as having a private railroad/highway/prison*/spaceport/whatever. You’re just contracting it out – whether you contract stuff out with or without graft is optional.

        *prisons are a particularly bad form of “privatization”. I was rather upset with Reason when they started boosting private prisons on their pages in the eighties. I’m glad they’ve gotten off that kick.

      2. The only reason “public private partnerships” are required in the modern day is because we struggle through such a tangled thicket of regulations that only a public entity partner can cost-effectively run interference for the otherwise “private” project. Of course, the “public partner” always then insists on retaining some public control of the enterprise, and also usually demands a piece of the action. This reminds me of Harry Browne’s description of government as a gang that breaks your legs, hands you a crutch, and then boasts that, without them, you couldn’t walk.

        Public-private partnerships are, as others have said here, crony-capitalism. Other rough synonyms are mercantilism — and even fascism, when government force is used to look after the partnership’s interests or enforce its monopoly.

  3. I don’t get it. How will private enterprise be able to force people to fund high-speed rail?

    1. Kleptocronycorpocracy! Which is the same as saying FREE MARKET!

      1. So this free market that you posit, does it allow companies to take money from people by force and spend it on things like rail? I don’t see how this works, otherwise. Do companies have guns and jails?

        1. Yes, Pro L. A “free market” means that companies are free to acquire money however they wish. Including holding a gun to your head while they dig around in your wallet.

          1. Oh, okay. Great. I think the government could use a little competition.

          2. I think someone should protest this “free market”! Preferably while wearing North Face jackets, listening to iPods and drinking Starbucks coffee milkshakes.

            1. You and your rules. I say some sort of vaguely stated and internally contradictory message, with lots of actions taken to annoy any possible group that might be sympathetic to your not-coherent message. If you feel like it.

    2. That’s the “public” half of public-private partnerships. Robert Poole loves ’em.

  4. Only 55%? I weep.

    1. So many people are so full of shit. It makes you want to drink yourself silly and black out under a park bench, don’t it?

      1. I prefer to smoke a couple bowls in front of a Firefly marathon my couch until I realize it’s the next morning. But yeah.

        1. Firefly? That’s a good show, so it doesn’t fit, because if you’re going to self-destruct, you might as well put on some Law & Order: SVU or an Oliver Stone movie marathon and challenge yourself NOT to lose faith in humanity and slit your wrists watching that noxious bullshit. Way more fun.

          1. Some things I have never watched:

            Crime shows with letters as the name

            1. Never watched Firefly???

              Firefly has the best-looking cast (female and and male) of any TV show, ever.

              And it’s fun, but with an underlying dark side.

    2. Hey, lots of people who would never get on one of these trains support it. Their logic is that if everyone else will use the rail, the highways will be freed up for them!

      The fact that it costs, you know, money, never seems to enter the equation.

      1. No, they realize that it costs money. They just want it to be other peoples’ money.

  5. How many people said, “I want to see ‘high speed rail’ and everyone who advocates for it taken out behind the barn and beaten to death with a rusty shovel”?

  6. Fuck public-private partnerships, government sponsored enterprises, crown corporations, and all that shit.

  7. This poll is invalid due to the false option fallacy.

    “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.”

    We’ve been waiting 50 years for private enterprise to build high speed rail. They’ve had their chance.

    The choice isn’t between community high speed rail and private high speed rail, it’s between community high speed rail or no high speed rail at all.

    1. “We’ve been waiting 50 years for private enterprise to build high speed rail. They’ve had their chance.”


    2. We don’t really want or need it. So “had their chance” makes no sense. I’ve been waiting forty years for a colony on Mars. So I should be able to force you to pay for it?

    3. Private industry has not had a chance to build passenger rail systems. Not since the government has been subsidizing highways and airports, and regulating the shit out of transportation industries.

    4. Hobie, you have a bit of a false option problem yourself. You seem to think that not having high-speed rail isn’t an option.

      1. Then RRP should ask if people want high speed rail or not, not give them false hope of a private high speed rail network.

        1. Actually, you have hit on something.

          Much of this BS about public-private “partnerships” is just another way for politicians to promise free ponies at a slightly lower unit cost.

    5. I’ve been waiting 40 years for private industry to produce a Vikings Super Bowl win. They had their chance.

      1. Brett Favre


    6. Community high-speed rail? Talk about a false option. It’s not community HSR it’s government HSR.

      So, Hobie, where’s your wonderful govt-planned, govt-built, govt-run California HSR? Still not a mile of track after years passed and millions spent? No? Why not?

      1. Obstructionism.

        1. That’s really funny. This is basically the same obstructionism (in nature, anyway, if not in degree) that prevents private transit developments.

          1. I hit the submit key before adding:

            Damn those pesky citizens! They put the kibosh on EVERYTHING!

  8. Don’t forget AMTRAK; they have pretty much eliminated any possibility a private passenger rail company could enter the market with even a prayer of profitability.

  9. When the choice was, “Should I take the train from St Louis to Salt Lake City, or just walk?” passenger rail was an awesome force in the market.

  10. Do you favor or oppose these public-private partnerships?

    I’m sorry, I don’t know what is meant by a “public-private partnership.” Virtually every “public” construction project is built by private companies that are selected through a competitive process. Is this what’s meant here? Or are people under the impression that when the government builds a road, it’s government employees who are doing the shoveling?

    1. Public-private means operation of the utility is temporarily granted to a private company, and that company is able to get some form of payment either from the users or directly from the government. This type of system leads to all kinds of corruption and fraud. If some form of infrastructure, say a toll road, is to be “privatized”, the correct way to do that is to permanently sell it clear title to a private owner, and not these bullshit 99 year lease things that let government keep some form of control.

      1. But if you sold the turnpike and it started losing money the road operator might close it down and build a Walmart on the property.

        Or something. 🙂

    2. Pete, “public-private partnership” does involve more than just having the state or city contract out supply or construction.

      It usually involves some sort of long-term operation (and revenue collecting function) and some kind of financing arrangement.

      There are companies that specialize in it now. Interestingly enough the two biggest ones in the world right now are in Australia and Spain.

  11. Fail.
    (1) No “we don’t need no steenking high speed rail” option
    (2) A growing portion of the population (myself included) has found landline unnecessary. And I guarantee that if you somehow got my prepaid cell number the conversation would consist of “put me on your do not call list” and a click. Assuming I picked up at all.

  12. How about the third, unpresented option?

    “Should the government build HSR and have a private company operate it?”

    1. That option was addressed in “Do you favor or oppose public-private partnerships?”

    2. This is the only way it would work. Private companies will have no right to that amount of land. Ever.

      1. That’s not really a huge amount of land for the precedent of a private interest having ownership of.

  13. It should be noted that Amtrak loses money primarily on its long-distance, transcontinental routes through the sparsely populated western states where it cannot compete with airline service. It should also be noted that this unprofitable service is mandated by the same “conservative” Congressional delegation that refuses to provide subsidies for that unprofitable service that they mandate. Furthermore, this same “conservative” Congressional delegation continuously obstructs efforts to upgrade Amtrak service in the shorter, more profitable regional routes where it is much more competitive with inefficient, short-hop airline service.

    1. Not one single national rail passenger service system on earth makes a profit. A few individual high speed trains may make a profit depending on how system accounting is done.
      Most of Amtrak’s long distance trains actually earn revenues equal to or higher than their direct operating costs. None of Amtrak’s individual trains or routes recover 100% of operating, capital and overhead cost share.
      The single most heavily subsidized Amtrak route is the Boston-Washington NEC because of its huge capital costs. Much of the NEC ROW dates back to the 1930’s when the Pennsylvania Railroad, aided by federal “subsidy”, rebuilt and electrified it between New York and Washington.
      By the time Amtrak became its owner, the `1930’s era infrastructure was in need of massive reconstruction, much of which remains incomplete. The overwhelming majority [66+%] of Amtrak’s billions in federal subsidy has been spent on this on-going NEC modernization, including purchase of locomotives and passenger cars.
      Finally, few users of Amtrak’s long distance trains ride the route from end to end. Most use these trains for relatively short trips between on-line cities, using the same seats multiple times during each train-set’s long distance trip. Thus, these long distance trains actually provide multiple short-distance trips far more efficiently than would a series of short-distance train operations.

  14. As to the topic of “privatization”, I have no ideological opposition to private passenger rail service. Private passenger rail was profitable for many decades before the Government subsidized development of the Airline and Interstate Highway Industries in the post-WWII era. And with diminishing traditional supplies of petroleum, passenger rail is a growth market that is sure to be profitable again.
    However, government intervention is necessary to overcome the barriers to market entry that are exerted primarily by the Fossil Fuel Lobby in an effort to maximize its dominance of the transportation energy market.

    1. The influence by “the Fossil Fuel Lobby” is bullshit. People are accustomed to highway and air travel because the full costs of these things are hidden. It is too easy for governments to expand this infrastructure and then not properly fund its continued existence. This is an entitlement problem.

  15. Ideally, our railways should be patterned after our airways, highways, roadways and waterways.

    Government should own, build and maintain the tracks and right-of-way. The private sector should own and operate the rolling stock, with individual companies all having equal competitive access to the railway right-of-way.

    Privatization of a transportation right-of-way is an abomination that grants local monopolization over that mode of transportation and suppresses a truly free and competitive market.

    1. In a free market, no one is entitled to the use of anything just because it exists.

      1. No shit. If you want to use something, you pay for it.

        Libertarians didn’t invent the government built highway system. We use it because it’s what’s available and we feel fine using it because we’ve paid fuel taxes that pay for the bulk of construction and maintenance costs (except for local streets which would have to be provided anyway). And for anyone who wants to contest this, I say, if it weren’t for the portion of the fuel tax diverted to pay for public transit, bike trails and footpaths the fuel tax would cover those costs.

        So how do you want to pay for passenger rail? A tax on train tickets? Or maybe just forget about it if no one is willing to pay the full fare?

        1. Sorry, but the 1956 federal aid highway act that created the Interstate Highway network was the first federal law that dedicated gas tax and other highway transportation-related taxes to highway construction. Prior to 1956, federal funding for transportation of all types came from general fund tax revenues. According to numerous analyses, not more than about 65% of federal funding for all forms of transportation has ever come from so-called “user-fee” taxes. Since 9/11/2001, substantial highway and commercial aviation funding has come from general-fund tax revenues diverted to the highway and aviation trust funds, dropping the user-fee share to far below 60%.
          In simplest terms, not one single traveler (except perhaps bicycle riders) currently pays “full fare”. Every transportation mode is subsidized in some way, and that is appropriate because society at large benefits from the existence and use of modern transportation.
          Railroads are the ONLY form of transportation in the U.S. that owns, maintains and operates its infrastructure, on which it pays property taxes. Airport and highway land remains untaxed, creating an immediate competitive disadvantage for railroads. Moreover, the simple existence of government funding systems for non-rail modes creates a further competitive disadvantage for rail transportation by relieving those modes of the costs of commercial market financing costs.
          Finally, use of the term “socialism” to characterize government funded transportation is totally inaccurate; just ask any true socialist — Bernie Sanders perhaps — and you will receive a thorough-going definition of the term.

  16. “Ideally, our railways should be patterned after our airways, highways, roadways and waterways.”
    ……Willie Green

    All the transportation systems in this country are subsidized. Building stuff with other-peoples-money is lots-o-fun. Atleast until you run out of other-peoples-money.

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