How High Speed Rail Can Spread Across the U.S.

The U.S. High Speed Rail Assocation, a new group formed to advocate for high speed rail, organized a conference in D.C. attended by Congressional representatives, smart growth advocates, and Governor Ed Rendell from Pennsylvania, a leading high speed rail proponent. Rendell argues that a nation-wide high speed rail network is critical and called for a “dedicated federal government capital budget” to fund the program. “We have just been nibbling at infrastructure,” Rendell argued. Rendell sees a dedicated “infrastructure bank,” which would “take the politics out of transportation decisions,” funneling funds to high speed rail, transportation rehabilitation, and transportation improvement projects.  Rendell noted that the American Society of Civil Engineers said the U.S. needs to invest $2.2 trillion to ensure the country’s future competitiveness.

In addition to strengthening the U.S. competitive position, Rendell argues that high speed rail would help restore the U.S. construction and manufacturing base, and “bring millions or tens of millions of jobs and new factories.” Rendell compared current opposition to a country-wide high speed rail network to the early opposition against the Erie Canal. He noted that the $9 billion investment (if calculated at today’s rate) in the Erie Canal was repaid within nine years, and the investment helped revolutionize the U.S. economy. 

In terms of high speed rail networks, the U.S. is falling even further behind other developed countries. Japan’s already advanced network will add 16,000 miles of high speed rail line by 2020. Spain is spending $100 billion on another 6,000 miles. While the U.S. spends 2.5 percent of its GDP on infrastructure, Spain is spending up to 10 percent. The U.S. has spent $1.3 trillion on highways, but only $53 billion on passenger rail.

While the Obama administration has put $8 billion in recovery funds and $5 billion of the budget towards high speed rail, this will really only help in planning and making relatively minor improvements to existing networks. Rendell fears much of the funds have already gone to mid-speed rail. California alone requires $45 billion for their high speed corridor plans, which would run from the northern to the southern part of the state.

Rendell sees a new high speed rail line between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, one of the most congested transit routes in the country. Additionally, he wants the northeast corridor Acela line to become truly high-speed. “The Acela trip between D.C. and New York City could be 1 hour and 35 minutes with infrastructure updgrades.” Overall, a nation-wide network would cost hundreds of billions, but is needed to replace relieve pressure off of highway infrastructure and crowded flight corridors. There are also environmental and health benefits. “High speed rail can take cars off the road.”

Other conference speakers made additional arguments for high speed rail in the U.S.:

Congressman Jim Costa, 20th District, California: California voters recently voted “yes” to a plan and $9 billion in state funds to create a linear, north-south corridor in California. The planned 700-mile system would “connect 80 percent of the population, while creating 300,000 new jobs,” Costa argues. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel in the U.S. We can plug in 3rd, 4th generation technologies from Japan and Europe.” Also, public private partnerships will be key to making the system work giving the costs involved. California is ready to move forward if there is federal support.

In discussing the results of a California commission on high speed rail, Costa noted that distances of between 100 and 400 miles were best suited for high speed rail.

Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, 30th District, Texas: Johnson said U.S. Southwest Airlines helped nix high speed rail in Texas a few years ago, and from this experience they learned “we need to start a grassroots public education campaign.” Johnson says a disproportionate amount of money has been given to highways. Current cargo traffic between Mexico and Texas has “torn up the roads,” and road repairs remain costly. Instead, Johnson thinks freight should move on high speed rail lines between the two countries.

Anthony Perl, Ph.D, Simon Fraser University: While the world isn’t reaching peak oil yet, Perl argues, the remaining oil will be much harder and more expensive to access. “If we are also serious about climate mitigation, we will need to add carbon capture and sequestration systems into existing oil and coal plants, which will raise the cost of extraction by 1/3.” Comparing people to pandas, Perl said both rely on one just one food source (in the case of pandas, bamboo; in the case of people, fossil fuels) which makes for a vulnerable future. “We need to differentiate our energy sources.” Perl sees a post-carbon intercity passenger rail system run on electricty. The cost of high speed rail will come down once China starts manufacturing high speed rail, Perl believes. China is aiming to produce 1,000 train sets in the next few years.

William Schroeer, State Policy Director, Smart Growth America:  “It’s about place,” Schroeer argues. High speed rail stations must support places, smart land use, and communities. As an example, Schroeer highlighted the station in Cologne, Germany, which is a destination within the community and is well-integrated into a town square. Rail riders can also rent bikes upon leaving the station, removing the need for car transport. In many countries, well-designed, integrated high speed rail stations have made adjacent land more valuable. “People will pay for accessibility.” Additionally, population growth occurs around these transportation access points. “People want to  live near accessibility.”

The U.S. High Speed Rail Assocation advocates for a 17,000 mile network across the U.S., which would include dedicated high speed track, multi-modal stations, and feeder rails. By 2015, they want to see the current U.S. high speed transportation plans in place; by 2030, a complete national system. A U.S. system would include electric high speed trains, mid-speed regional trains, and local light rail or trams. The anticipated cost of the whole system is $ 600 billion, or $30 billion per year over 20 years. Transit-oriented development around new lines and stations is also key to making high speed work. The organization notes that Spain has recently spent $340 billion, China has invested $300 billion, and developing countries, including Morocco, Brazil, and others, are also investing.

Image credit: Proposed California high speed rail station. U.S. High Speed Rail Association

7 thoughts on “How High Speed Rail Can Spread Across the U.S.

  1. how it grows 10/22/2009 / 3:43 pm

    James Kunstler seems to think money might be better spent on regular train service instead of high speed. Any thoughts?

    • AJ 10/27/2009 / 11:37 am

      I completely agree with this approach. Every metro of at least 100,000 people should have passenger rail access before we start trying to outdo these other countries. We are insanely behind on this. People don’t need to be able to get from point A to point B faster than the car to want to switch over. The simple fact that people can get work done while traveling makes up for the added travel time. But people DO need to know exactly how long it will take and be able to trust the schedule so that they can allocate their time.

      Start simple. Upgrade the tracks and rebuild the former corridors, so that we have solid regions. Then upgrade the lines between regions to high speed.

  2. Brice Maryman 10/23/2009 / 12:59 am

    i don’t know who is editing/writing the dirt these days, but i am loving the content and really appreciate that you are stretching beyond the more recently-defined parameters of landscape architecture. smart growth, transportation, environmental degredation–these were olmsted’s concerns and we need to return to a holistic, 10,000 foot level discussion about these issues.

    nice to see the dirt helping to take us there. would love to see more of this in LAM.

  3. stephen 10/29/2009 / 9:43 am

    I agree with AJ.
    Plus, the capital requirements for repairs, upgrades, refurbishing have to be at least an order of magnitude less than those for new high-speed rail.

    I love the idea of high-speed rail, and since I’ve experienced the European high-speed systems on several occasions I appreciate their value. But let’s fix and improve/upgrade what we have right now, before embarking on a very costly high-speed rail program.

  4. gerard koeppel 10/29/2009 / 12:12 pm

    Governor Rendell properly cites the dramatic effect of the Erie Canal on the nation’s economy, but it is worth noting that the $7 million (not $9 billion) cost was entirely funded by risky and novel NY State bonds after President Madison shut the US Treasury (with a stunning veto on his final day in office). If New York had relied on a “dedicated federal government capital budget” for Erie, it would not have been built. (More on this: “Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and the American Empire” (DaCapo, 2009):

  5. Mandy Sites on Oahu 12/23/2009 / 10:07 am

    Hi I found your article by chance, I was digging around the worldwide web for things to do on Oahu when I found your site, I must say your website is really intriguing I truely think the layout, its amazing!. I don’t have the time at the moment to fully absorb your site but I have saved the location of it and also subscribed for your RSS feeds. I will be back when I free up some time. Thank you for a excellent website.

  6. Pieter 12/31/2009 / 4:44 pm

    This is a great step forward, the United States is way behind on rail travel, especially Back West. I have found that it is actually faster, in some cases to take a train than it is to fly.

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