High-Speed Rail is a Key to U.S. Economic Competitiveness

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[By Paul Goddin for Mobility Lab, published on February 28, 2014]

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High-speed rail (HSR) is gaining momentum in the United States, with many projects in various stages of planning.

California’s controversial and groundbreaking high-speed rail line, which will link San Francisco and Los Angeles, is expected to begin construction this summer. The ambitious California HSR line has prompted development of similar plans for the Midwest, New England, Texas, and Florida.

In our own backyard, an exciting modernization of Union Station has been proposed that promises to cement Washington D.C.’s competitiveness. The D.C. plan, still in its infancy, would provide a 220 mph high-speed rail connection to New York City, building on the success of the Acela Express, which only hints at the capability of true HSR.

These developments were discussed at this week’s High-Speed Rail Summit, hosted by the U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSR) in D.C. The purpose of the Summit was to advocate for and share ideas pertaining to these exciting new infrastructure projects. Mobility Lab was a participant and presenter at the event.

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High-speed rail – or so-called “bullet trains” – is defined as trains capable of speeds above 200 mph (comparable, that is, to air travel). HSR runs on renewable energy, is capable of connecting and thus economically strengthening American cities, and promises to ensure our future global competitiveness. Richard Arena, president of the Association for Public Transportation and a presenter at the Summit, referred to HSR as a “paradigm shift, a game changer.”

HSR is not without its detractors, however. While the USHSR estimates that 88 percent of Americans support high-speed rail, this support seemingly evaporates once funding for these massive public-works projects is discussed.

The cost of HSR in California, for instance, has increased from $32 billion to $67 billion as the scope of the project has increased. These cost increases have spurred lawsuits, political posturing, late-night talk show jokes, and an entire cottage industry devoted to detracting from the promising transportation technology. The federal government has provided only an initial $7.5 billion dollars for the California project, and nothing at all in the last four years.

The controversy over high-speed rail in California has been compared to another public infrastructure project that received widespread opposition: the Golden Gate Bridge. The iconic bridge was opposed for a number of reasons, from budgetary to environmental, even though California’s need for the bridge was enormous and today it is considered indispensable to the economic vitality of the San Francisco Bay Area.

imageMobility Lab Director Tom Fairchild, a speaker at the HSR Summit, pointed out that, with respect to sticker shock over HSR, Americans might have had a similar reaction had they been fully apprised of the cost of Eisenhower’s interstate highway system build-out in the 1950s. Urban planners and smart -growth advocates point out that we are still paying for this design decision today, in the form of social costs/gentrification, sprawl, ailing suburbs, environmental degradation, and dependence on foreign oil.

As people on both sides of the political aisle bicker over the cost of HSR, America falls further behind Europe and Asia on yet another measure that will likely determine our ability to compete globally. Businesses prefer regions, cities, and indeed, countries with excellent transportation and connectivity. Residents choose where to live based on similar criteria. The opportunity cost of doing nothing – of doubling down on the automobile, essentially – isn’t being discussed, yet this cost is enormous, and very real.

Organizers of the High-Speed Rail Summit believe America needs only one success story, after which the public will get behind the technology. High-speed rail is not only aspirational, as the master-plan artist’s renderings of D.C. and San Francisco suggest, but practical.

Rail, specifically high-speed rail, is an integral component in a multimodal transportation strategy, and can be a crucial factor in determining our country’s economic competitiveness.

Map by the U.S. High Speed Rail Association.

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