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All Aboard for High-Speed Rail

By Patrick Burns | February 1, 2011

CREDIT: C. K. Koay (CC).

The Obama administration has given passenger rail the strongest federal push since the days of Abraham Lincoln in hopes of spurring job growth and keeping pace with a rising China. In early 2010, Washington allotted $8 billion in stimulus cash to fund 13 high-speed rail systems spread across 31 states, including projects in Florida, the Midwest, California, and the Northeast. "Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail," said President Obama during the 2011 State of the Union address.

America's current "high-speed" train, Amtrak's Acela Express, averages a mere 80 mph along its 16-station route from the District of Columbia to Boston. By comparison, France's TGV has an average speed of more than 150 mph, and China just built a train that can exceed 300 mph. An Acela trip from New York to Boston costs about $100 and clocks in around 3.5 hours—or just a tad quicker than the $15 buses that leave from Chinatown. As anyone who has traveled on Amtrak will tell you, the system is not known for punctuality, thus putting Amtrak in close competition with the independent bus lines.

In an automobile-driven nation, some see the federal government's rail initiative as overly optimistic, questioning the demand. This has led Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood to defend high-speed rail with an "if you build it they will come" attitude. Across the country, high-speed rail has encountered vociferous opposition, and some don't even want to build it all. California received the lion's share of the federal rail earmarks ($2.25 billion), but even in that state critics have dubbed the proposed Central Valley line a "train to nowhere." Florida's new conservative governor, Rick Scott, has considered saying "no thanks" to $2.39 billion in federal funding for his state, while his newly elected Republican colleagues in Wisconsin and Ohio beat him to the punch—both asked Secretary Lahood to redirect $1.2 billion in grants.

Like most everything these days, high-speed rail has become politicized. "On the one hand we have tremendous presidential leadership, and on the other we have emerging partisanship around what was historically a very bipartisan issue," said Kevin Brubaker, Deputy Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a public interest advocacy organization.

While fast trains would be long-term projects for many regions of the country, there is momentum for immediate improvements in the Northeast. "I think the Northeast is America's best hope for overcoming that partisanship," said Brubaker.

Data support the Boston-Washington corridor as the region with the greatest demand. America 2050, an urban planning initiative, released a report this January which found that the Northeast conurbation "leads the nation in virtually every parameter" for high-speed rail suitability. The parameters include population density, employment, and transit connectivity.

If the Northeast corridor has the demand, what's holding back progress? "The irony is that the regions in which there is likely to be the greatest demand for high-speed rail are also those that may be the most difficult to build," said Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050. The Northeast may have enough density and a history of reliance on public transportation, but it also has aging infrastructure and very little free space.

In addition to structural obstacles, cost is a factor, especially in these belt-tightening times when states face budget crises. Alain C. Enthoven, professor of management at Stanford University, has written extensively on transit economics for California. Despite his opposition to high-speed rail in California, he agrees that the Northeast has promise but feels that the needs and the costs interact: "What you need to do depends on how much it costs," he said.

Uncertainty over "how much" often increases complications, since public construction projects are notorious for going over budget. Critics point to Boston's Big Dig, which ended up costing three times more than estimated. Congress itself is unsure how much high-speed rail construction would cost. In its March 2009 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that "while some U.S. corridors have characteristics that suggest economic viability, uncertainty associated with rider and cost estimates… makes it difficult to make such determinations on individual proposals."

Political factors in the Northeast are equally troubling. Last fall, New Jersey's cost-cutting governor Chris Christie canceled a much-needed rail tunnel that would have connected his state to Manhattan. Even if the governors of the Northeast can keep their eyes on the prize to support regional high-speed rail, undoubtedly there will be friction at the local level—among unions, regulators, and landowners. "It often boils down to issues of 'not in my backyard,'" said Kevin Brubaker of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, recalling the heated debate among Connecticut homeowners before Amtrak won authorization to improve service through their state.

Experts contend that there are a few things that may expedite high-speed rail development in the Northeast. First is a unified, long-term plan on which all sides can agree. Scores of proposals have been prepared by architecture firms, local governments, policy organizations, and rail companies. "The fact that there is no single vision yet for the Northeast corridor makes the federal government nervous about spending money in one place," said Todorovic of America 2050. It should be noted that the Northeast received the smallest portion ($435 million) of the Recovery Act's $8 billion in high-speed rail grants.

An added benefit of high-speed rail is that it would create thousands of manufacturing and construction jobs. After years of negligible industrial job growth, shovel-ready projects are still frustratingly elusive. Already there is evidence that jobs may not materialize if the initiatives don't go forward—following Wisconsin's cancellation of rail funding, Spanish train manufacturer Talgo scrapped plans to build a facility in Milwaukee.

Third, rail is just plain more efficient than road and air travel. According to the Environmental Law & Policy Center, Americans spend $1 billion a day on foreign oil and an average of four weeks each year stuck in gridlock. Massive flight delays and airport security screenings have rendered short-haul flights an inconvenient hassle. Rail presents a way to alleviate pressure on those flights and give customers greater choice.

Finally, the risk of further procrastination on high-speed rail is part of what President Obama has identified as America's second Sputnik moment. China built its high-speed rail network, the world's longest, in just a few years, and by 2020 it plans to cover 10,000 miles. Americans are already concerned about losing ground to China in trade, currency, and education. Fast, interconnected railways would make China and the United States even more attractive to business and innovation.

While matching China's breakneck speed isn't realistic, the United States could learn a thing or two from the perseverance of UK's conservative government. In spite of its austerity plan, the country remains committed to the HS2 high-speed line connecting London to the northern part of the country.

The Acela line was first proposed in the 1950s, but it took more than 40 years to get it built, mostly due to a lack of Congressional support. Now, ironically, the federal government is ready and committed. Maybe state and local government will take a more serious look at high-speed rail this time around. New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg has already sounded the all aboard.

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