Transit blogging roundup: the US remains mindbogglingly different than East Asia by mattsteinglass
June 19, 2008, 10:00 am
Filed under: Transportation, Vietnam

Yglesias notes that Maryland is planning on spending 2.2 billion USD on a single highway and a few paltry tens of millions on several rail projects. Megan says the reason the US doesn’t have high-speed intercity rail is that government wants the train to pass through every major US city, which means it can’t build enough straight-shot high-speed tracks — though she confusingly cites the example of a high-speed NY-Chicago route needing to pass through Buffalo for legislative reasons, when it’s not clear to me why there wouldn’t instead be political pressure to have it pass through Pittsburgh. (Maybe the Alleghenies would require too many tunnels? But in that case running it through Buffalo makes sense.)

Here in Vietnam, the problem is the opposite: international development experts are actually trying to discourage the authorities from their plan to build a high-speed Hanoi-Saigon rail line by 2020, at a cost of $40 billion. They argue that for a country of Vietnam’s level of development the investment simply doesn’t make sense relative to other possible transit improvements; it’s a prestige project. Typically, from a paper by Kennedy School Vietnam expert David Dapice and the gang of Harvard-trained Vietnamese economists with the Fulbright Economics Training Program in HCMC:

The selection of projects is not based on clear economic criteria. For example Vietnam is investing in a string of deep sea ports in central Vietnam while the infrastructure in Ho Chi Minh City, Dong Nai, Binh Duong, and Ba Ria Vung Tau (which together are absorbing 60 percent of Vietnam’s population and job growth) is stretched to the breaking point. The planned $40 billion high speed rail line would make a small contribution to growth while imposing a massive foreign currency debt on the public purse.

What’s interesting is that what Dapice et al are describing is exactly the same thing Megan is describing: political control over infrastructure projects is leading to balkanization of big projects into too many inefficient little ones. Vietnam ought to have three major ports — Haiphong, Danang/Cam Ranh, HCMC/Vung Tau — and three international airports — Hanoi, Danang, HCMC. Instead every little city is trying to build its own. The difference in Vietnam is that every one of those little cities is lined up in a row along the coast, making a national high-speed rail line much more plausible. And I’ve gotta say, rising oil prices make investment in high-speed Hanoi-HCMC rail look less ridiculous to me than it might otherwise seem. The last time Dapice and company opposed a huge Vietnamese government infrastructure investment on efficiency grounds, it was the building of (oil-exporting) Vietnam’s first refinery at Dung Quat — a project that, with oil prices now triple what they were 5 years ago, suddenly looks very farsighted.

But to get back to rail: the main point, to me, about the rail difference is that rail drives urban development. That’s true at the level of urban transit, where subway stops create retail centers — Hong Kong smartly paid for its excellent subway system by having retail/office developers build the stops, and it’s worked great. And it’s true at the intercity level — Europe’s dispersed net of many great cities is associated with its rail-based transit system, while the US’s shift to an air and highway system has meant that many once-significant cities (Kansas City, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo) have become “flyover country”, severed from the country’s cultural-political elite. Vietnam currently has a similar trend going on in its center: as economic and political power gravitates towards Hanoi and HCMC, there’s not much to anchor the significance of the old Hue/Danang zone. A high-speed rail line would be a good investment in preventing the economic, cultural and social hollowing-out of the country’s middle.


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