U.S. High-Speed Rail: Time to Hop Aboard or Be Left Behind

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chinas-high-speed-trainIn recent months, several conservative governors have rejected federal funds to begin constructing high-speed rail lines in their states. But a high-speed rail advocate argues that such ideologically driven actions are folly, as other U.S. states and countries around the world are moving swiftly to embrace a technology that is essential for competitive 21st-century economies.

by Andy Kunz, Yale Environment 360, President and CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, a trade group that focuses on advancing a national network.

China has committed to investing $360 billion to vastly expand its showcase network of high-speed trains, which already carry passengers at more than 200 miles per hour between some of the country’s largest cities.

Spain, despite its economic woes, is investing $170 billion to extend its acclaimed high-speed rail system, which now makes the 386-mile Madrid-Barcelona run in just 2 hours, 38 minutes — compared to six hours by car. A similar boom in high-speed rail construction is taking place throughout Europe, from the boot of Italy to the Baltic Sea.

Worldwide, nations not normally associated with the bullet train revolution — India, Brazil, Argentina, and Morocco, among others — are making plans to build high-speed rail networks. They understand that rapid, inter-city rail systems will be essential to developing competitive 21st-century economies as oil supplies dwindle, highways and airports face increasing congestion, and pressure to reduce carbon emissions rises.

And the United States? For the past several months the news on the high-speed rail front has been dominated by several governors, swept into power by the Tea Party movement, proudly proclaiming that they will have nothing to do with high-speed rail projects, which they contend are boondoggles. Indeed, the governors of Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio have collectively rejected $3.6 billion in federal funds that would have covered nearly all of the cost of building rail lines on such routes as Orlando to Tampa, Milwaukee to Madison, and Cleveland to Columbus.

[See The Illusive Dream of Modern American Rail]

The actions of the three governors undermine the job creation that they tout as central to their administrations.

Fortunately, the foresight of the Obama administration and various states will ensure that the foundation of a national high-speed rail network will be laid in the coming years, with $8 billion in federal stimulus funds going to construct the first links in a high-speed rail network that is envisioned to stretch 17,000 miles by 2030. Bullet trains would eventually whisk people between all major U.S. cities — Los Angeles to Seattle, Dallas to Albuquerque, and Boston to Washington, at 220 miles per hour. The cost of such a network would be significant — $600 billion — but a combination of public and private funds would build the system, which would eventually yield benefits that far exceed the original investment.

high_speed_network_map_700

“A single high speed rail line can carry the equivalent of a 10-lane freeway, can be built for much less cost, is cheaper to operate, uses a tiny fraction of the energy (from electricity, not oil), and operates without congestion or delays – especially during rush hour and peak travel days.”

For now, the U.S. funds rejected by governors Rick Scott of Florida, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and John Kasich of Ohio, will be distributed to other states such as California and Illinois, which will benefit for years to come from the job creation and economic stimulus that will accompany the establishment of high-speed rail networks. In the future, the actions by these three governors will be viewed as folly, decisions that were made on ideological rather than rational grounds and that undermine the job creation that the three governors tout as central to their administrations.

The decisions of the three Republican governors were not isolated acts, but rather a coordinated effort by the Tea Party and its allies to attempt to kill high-speed rail across America. Fortunately, 35 other governors — Republicans and Democrats alike — whose states were eligible for federal high-speed rail funding did accept U.S. grants for rail projects.

Last month’s decision by Governor Scott of Florida to reject federal funding for high-speed rail reflects the combination of bad information and partisan thinking that motivated all three governors to turn their backs on the future. In making his decision, Scott says he relied heavily on a January report by the libertarian Reason Foundation, which is funded by major conservative organizations, oil companies, and companies involved in highway construction.

The Reason Foundation report was riddled with inaccuracies, exaggerations, and distortions, such as a claim that the construction of the Orlando-Tampa line could cost Florida taxpayers $3 billion in capital cost overruns. That figure was arrived at by comparing the project in Florida to California, which faces far tougher right-of-way and land-use issues. The Tampa-Orlando line already has a long-established right of way on the Interstate 4 median, making it much cheaper to build. In addition, the eight international rail consortia seeking to construct the Florida line have guaranteed that they will cover operation, maintenance, and subsidy costs for 30 years.

The Florida line would connect Tampa and Orlando with Walt Disney World, one of the world’s top tourist attractions.

After rejecting the federal funds, Scott’s office issued a statement that he “is now focused on moving forward with infrastructure projects that create long-term jobs and turn Florida’s economy around.” Those new projects will require far more Florida tax dollars than would ever have been spent on the Tampa to Orlando line, prompting former Republican Governor Jeb Bush to express surprise at Scott’s decision. Fifteen Republican and 11 Democratic state senators in Florida also signed a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood asking him to ignore Scott and allow the legislature to work with the consortia to revive the Tampa to Orlando project.

In addition, a group of Florida mayors is speaking with LaHood about bypassing the governor and allowing an organization formed by the mayors to receive the federal funds and oversee the building of the Tampa-Orlando line. This effort underscores the broad, bipartisan backing for the project, as evidenced by the fact that eight business associations from 11 counties in central Florida are staunch supporters of the proposed rail line. One key reason: The line would connect Tampa and Orlando with Walt Disney World, one of the world’s top tourist attractions.

The reasons that so many disparate interests support the creation of a national high-speed rail network are glaringly obvious, and are becoming more so by the day. The United States has become far too dependent on foreign oil, with Americans consuming six times more oil per capita than Europeans, who enjoy better, faster, and cheaper mobility. The U.S now spends up to $700 billion a year to import foreign oil, 70 percent of which is consumed by cars, trucks, and airplanes.

Now, for the second time in less than three years, the price of oil has shot up past $100 a barrel, threatening the fragile economic recovery. And most experts agree that the world has passed the point of peak oil, which means that as demand soars and supplies dwindle, oil prices could hit $300 per barrel this decade.

Enhancing U.S. energy security is just one reason the country needs a state-of-the-art high-speed rail system, which by 2030 could transport millions of people each day between America’s cities. A national high-speed rail system would generate millions of jobs; help revive the country’s manufacturing sector by creating a new industry producing the trains, steel, and related components; alleviate pressure on a crumbling transportation infrastructure; and lessen the ever-worsening congestion on America’s highways and at its airports, where delays cause an estimated $156 billion in losses to the U.S. economy annually. And then there is climate change and the large-scale reduction of CO2 emissions that would result from the creation of an interstate high-speed rail system and the expansion of regional commuter rail systems.

As a high-speed rail network spreads across the U.S. in the coming decades, the costs of operating the national transportation system will decline each year to the point where the savings will eventually exceed the estimated $600 billion cost of building the rail system. Although public funds will be used to cover much of the construction costs, the network will perform best if operated by private companies.

The U.S. must build a national high-speed rail network if it hopes to maintain its competitiveness in the world economy. China and Europe are now moving ahead with their high-speed rail networks at breakneck speed, which means that in a decade or two they will have significantly reduced their dependence on imported oil, created tens of millions of new jobs, and saved their countries trillions of dollars by vastly improving the productivity of their economies thanks to a low-carbon transportation sector that moves people and goods at speeds that could one day hit 300 miles per hour, or more.

The U.S. can be part of that future. But if more states follow the example of Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio, the country will remain shackled by 19th- and 20th-century forms of transportation in a 21st-century world. Contemplate this image: China, Europe, Russia, South America, and other parts of the globe are streaking by at 250 miles per hour while the likes of Governor Scott are stuck in a traffic jam on an interstate, watching the trains whiz past.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andy Kunz is a president and CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, a trade group that focuses on advancing a national network. A longtime high-speed rail promoter, he has more than three decades of experience in projects related to urban planning, community design, and sustainability.

© 2011, Yale Environment 360. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Yale Environment 360 (30 Articles)

This post originally appeared on Yale Environment 360. Yale Environment 360 is an online magazine offering opinion, analysis, reporting and debate on global environmental issues. The site features original articles by scientists, journalists, environmentalists, academics, policy makers, and business people, as well as multimedia content and a daily digest of major environmental news. Yale Environment 360 is published by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale University. It is funded in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

  • Jeff

    Perhaps if you looked at this as a bi-partisan issue, and didn’t hold republican governors hostage via your articles, you would get more traction. The reason they rejected the funds is to set an example, not because it is a bad idea. Right now is not the time to be doling out billions of dollars, putting the federal government in charge of something that should be private industry. If High Speed Rail is a great money maker, those with the cash to make it happen, will make it happen organically. Not through government spending and a bunch of useless political rhetoric.

    • Jeff

      By the way…leaving this in the hands of the likes of Obama and Joe Biden, or any other politician without sound business experience is suicide. The sooner you understand that this country wasn’t built by men like Obama and Biden, the more success you will have commercializing your vision.

  • http://www.cleanenergyactionproject.com John Whitney AIA

    Great article. High speed rail on the East Coast is essential (I’ve battled the NJ Turnpike for most of my life and can safely say that it really sucks).

    See the GOOD “This is Why We Need High-Speed Rail” posting and video:

    http://www.good.is/post/video-this-is-why-we-need-high-speed-rail-in-the-northeast/

    Washington to Philadelphia in 67 minutes. Philadelphia to Manhattan in 38 minutes. Where do I buy my tickets?

  • http://www.cleanenergyactionproject.com John Whitney AIA

    I’m sorry Jeff, you are wrong. The basic infrastructure of this nation was built by men like President Obama and Vice-President Biden. Private industry does not/ did not dredge the rivers and harbors, build the airports, bridges, dams, and the inter-state highway system, develop the internet, educate our children, defend our nation, police our cities, or support pure science. And private industry will not build the high-speed rail system because there is no short-term profit to be realized.

    It is, however, for the greater good. And that is what the government is there for. To ensure the greater good.

    By the way, in a recession, most economists (and by economists I mean people who have devoted their lives to studying and researching economics) agree that the government should be spending money on infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy.

  • Raj Kapoor

    Shhhhhh do not let SouthWest Airline or Bush family hear about any progress of Rail Road, as soon as Poppy Bush came to office he cancelled the well laid out plans that were developed under Reagan to SouthWest Airline that worked for his election and promised Governorship to his son. What have BUSH’s done for Texas except to extract more from Texas and reduce federal projects, go ask anyone in Waxahachie< Waco or San Antonio or even ElPaso and Houston, unless you were lobbyist or crook no one else was helped.
    Rail Roads are long term investment and help people and state, but cannot produce for TOLL Stealing City People, state transport office or contractors, that are thriving in Texas, stealing millions of dollars with no audit or supervision, hope FBI cracks few cases and makes people an example.

  • http://www.cleanenergyactionproject.com John Whitney AIA

    Meanwhile, from a Worldwatch Insititute report:

    http://blogs.worldwatch.org/revolt/china-aims-to-green-transportation-sector/

    In China development of high speed rail powers ahead. “In the six years since establishing its first HSR line, the country has become the world leader in HSR development. By the end of 2010, China had 17 HSR lines in operation with a total operational length of about 8,400 kilometers—the longest worldwide. The Medium and Long-Term Rail Network Plan projects that this will more than double to 18,000 kilometers by 2020. According to Worldwatch estimates, more than 1,100 billion Yuan ($168 billion) in HSR investment would be needed in the coming decade to accomplish this goal, which could create an average of 630,000 jobs per year.”

    Note: In 6 years they went from no HSR to becoming the world leader.

    Note: 630,000 jobs per year.

  • http://www.cleanenergyactionproject.com John Whitney AIA

    I continue to be in awe of what has been accomplished in China in just 6 years: 8,400 kilometers (5,220 miles) of high speed rail with plans to add an additional 9,600 kilometers in the next 9 years for a total of 11,185 miles of high speed rail. If we’d had the vision and will to match the Chinese in 2005 we might now have high speed rail in the U.S. that ran from:

    Boston to Miami: 927 miles
    New York to San Francisco: 2,909 miles
    Seattle to San Diego: 1,255 miles

    Total: 5,088 miles.

    Add in Minneapolis to New Orleans by way of Chicago (1,335 miles) and San Diego to Miami (2,654 miles) and we would have most of the major U.S. metro areas for a total of 9,077 miles.

    If our Chinese friends can do so can we.

  • http://www.cleanenergyactionproject.com John Whitney AIA

    Just a little off subject, about our existing rail transportation system, an article from Alt Energy Stocks: “The New Golden Age of Railroads”, see:

    http://www.altenergystocks.com/archives/2011/05/the_new_golden_age_of_railroads_1.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+AlternativeEnergyStocks+%28AltEnergyStocks.com%29

    From the article:

    “Did you know that both Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have billion dollar investments in railroads? If so, did you ever wonder why? For Mr. Buffett, it’s an indirect investment through Berkshire Hathaway, which bought the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad outright in February of last year. For Mr. Gates, it’s a direct 10.04% stake in Canadian National Railway.”

    “The reason is simple. Railroads are the cheapest, cleanest and most energy efficient ground transportation networks in the world, which effectively guarantees them an increasingly important role as the world comes to grips with peak cheap oil.”

    “Railroads aren’t just a little more fuel efficient than long-haul trucking. They’re up to four times more fuel efficient and getting better every year. A 2009 study commissioned by the Federal Railroad Administration reported that rail fuel efficiency varied from 156 to 512 ton-miles per gallon while truck fuel efficiency ranged from 68 to 133 ton-miles per gallon. According to the Association of American Railroads, U.S. freight railroads averaged 484 ton-miles per gallon in 2010, a 106% improvement over the industry average of 235 ton-miles per gallon in 1980.”

  • http://www.dogstrainingcollars.com/ Elatia Harris

    It’s simple as to who’s killing High-Speed Rail and why.

    High-Speed Rail uses Electricity.

    Using Electricity means no need for Big Oil/Big Refineries.

    Less need for Refineries and Big Oil angers folks like the Koch Brothers.

    So the Koch Brothers must find a way to kill High-Speed Rail.

    So they fund the election of radical Governors in key states where High-Speed Rail is strongly favored.

    They bribe their new Lapdog Governors into rejecting High-Speed Rail.

    Then they use right-wing media outlets to whip up low-information voters to join the Tea Party that the Koch brothers largely finance, to plant some ’supporters’ of killing High-Speed Rail in front of the camera.

    And voila, just like that, the Koch Brothers have killed High-Speed Rail, and therefore, Big Oil keeps ahold of its energy monopoly in the States.

    While the rest of the world laughs and calls us stupid cowboys, and moves on with their own High-Speed Rail improvements.