The editorial page of The Sacramento Bee on Wednesday ran a head-to-head editorial discussing whether the proposed high-speed rail project in California is a valuable addition to infrastructure or a boondoggle.

No surprise, the boondoggle advocate, Ben Boychuk, managing editor of the Heartland Institute's School Reform News, points to high costs and the fact that California could really use the money in infrastructure elsewhere.

Pia Lopez, an editorial writer at the Bee, argues the other side, noting that the rest of the world is embracing high-speed rail, which is ideal for 200-mile to 600-mile journeys (some would argue 150 miles to 800 miles), and California is the perfect fit for the technology.

So which is it: ideal travel mode for a densely populated state, or big waste of money? The answer has two parts. The first part pertains to the cost of building, and running, the rail. The other is the economic cost versus benefit of having the infrastructure pass through a particular town or neighborhood.

A recent study from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and the Frontier Group, and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Surdna Foundation, challenges some of the Heartland Institute’s claims that nearly no high-speed rail turns a profit.

For the sake of argument, let’s focus on California’s plans for a grade-separated, true high-speed train that will theoretically cruise along at 220 mph. No other plans in the U.S. are nearly so ambitious, or in line with what the rest of the world is doing, nor are other projects so expensive.

The California train is estimated to cost $40 billion, and it will likely cost even more than that. No one is arguing that cutting-edge HSR is cheap. France’s TGV, however, paid back its construction costs after 12 years of service, and the Paris-Lyon service continues to turn a profit. Boychuk is correct that not all of TGV turns a profit, that 20 percent of all TGV services are losing money in 2010, and some services might be cut. However, the bulk of TGV, even in the economic downturn, continue to break even or make a profit, according to the study from U.S. PIRG.

Spain, the much beloved come-from-behind high-speed rail story, reportedly also turns a profit on its national AVE network, even through the economic downturn, according to the report.  

Even Amtrak’s Acela, which mostly travels at about the same pace as a local train, is plagued by overcrowded tracks and just got Wi-Fi a few months ago, has turned a profit.

Economic considerations, however, can be looked at far beyond the train itself. In Wisconsin, Republican Governor-elect Scott Walker has already vowed to reject $810 million in federal rail money for a line from Milwaukee to Madison. But if the money goes, so will Spanish train company Talgo, which has said it will take its factory elsewhere in the U.S.

According to the recent report, construction alone can be beneficial, as rail construction is more labor-intensive than highway construction. Other countries have created anywhere from 5,000 to 8,000 jobs, with thousands more once the rail is operational.

High-speed rail has also invigorated slumping cities when a station is erected. For regions that rely on tourism, efficient train service can be a boost to the local economy. Lleida in Spain has seen a 15 percent increase in tourism and Ciudad Real, which was once a struggling small city, is now a long-distance commuter town and regional business center because of the AVE, according to the study.

The last part of the equation is rail’s ability to shut down short-haul air traffic. Everywhere that fast trains pop up, air travel between the two destinations drops off or nearly dies. The U.S. government estimates that in 2007, domestic flight delays cost the U.S. economy $41 billion and burned through about 740 million additional gallons of jet fuel. With Los Angeles to San Francisco being the nation’s second busiest air corridor, the savings from reducing those trips could be significant.

Although the U.S. PIRG report is ideologically opposite from the Heartland Institute’s position, Boychuk’s argument has merit. The money could be used elsewhere. However, the same argument could be made for every dollar that is spent on any piece of infrastructure. With the exception of Acela, government-run Amtrak continuously loses money, and so any true high-speed train run solely by the government (California is expected to be a public-private partnership) should raise eyebrows. But, as other countries have shown, a well-designed high-speed rail line is not a ludicrous fantasy; it can turn a profit, and can also be a part of a cleaner energy future.