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National High Speed Rail Plan Unveiled, Despite Political Roadblocks

A transportation option established in Europe and booming in China faces regional challenges in the U.S.

by Kevin Murphy

Nov 17, 2010

The US High Speed Rail Association unveiled its vision Monday for a 17,000-mile network of rail service that would criss-cross the United States by 2030 with electric trains traveling up to 220 mph,  despite opposition from some newly-elected governors who want billions in available federal money for highways instead.

The association sponsored a three-day conference in New York that included a series of endorsements for high-speed rail from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and other current and former transportation leaders.

The Obama administration has awarded $10.4 billion in economic stimulus money for proposed high-speed rail projects since last year, including $2.4 billion to 23 states announced in late October. Obama has praised high-speed rail as a clean energy option and has lamented how the United States has fallen behind China and Europe in high-speed rail.

High-speed rail is endorsed as a way to reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions because people would ride the trains instead of driving or flying to their destinations. It is also seen as an economic development incentive by attracting new industry and business opportunity to areas it serves. Labor organizations favor the high-speed rail because of jobs it would create in the construction phase and beyond.

But the brakes are being put on high-speed rail in some states. Governors-elect Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio want to put money awarded their two states for high-speed rail into road projects instead.

LaHood wrote both governors last week stating that their high-speed rail money cannot be used for other purposes and will be redirected to other states. He reiterated that Monday in speaking to hundreds of people attending the high-speed rail conference.

Akin to the Interstate Highway System?

LaHood likened the dawn of high-speed rail to other turning points in American transportation history, such as the Interstate highway system in the 1950s.

“Just like with interstates in the 1950s, we haven't yet drawn every single route on the map,” LaHood said in prepared remarks. “We don't yet know what every single financing agreement will look like. But it took 50 years to build a state-of-the art interstate system and I believe that 25 years from now we'll have a state-of-the-art high speed rail system, built by American workers right here in the Unites States.”

Opponents of high-speed rail say it is way too expensive to build at a time when the country has so many other needs. The US High Speed Rail Association said its proposed plan would cost $600 billion to develop over the next 20 years.

Some opponents say that greater use of hybrid cars would save more energy than high-speed rail with none of the cost. They also point to continuing operating and maintenance costs that would be a drain on public dollars.

The Nov. 2 election results turned up the volume against high-speed rail as Republicans defeated Democrats who tended to be more supportive.

Partisanship Criticized

“To see them take a political stand on high-speed rail is disappointing,” said Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, a Washington organization that is part of the Regional Plan Association. The group did a recent research paper that analyzed where high-speed rail is most viable. “It's not a partisan issue,” she said.

Todorovich doesn't see Republican gains in the election as a threat to the overall high-speed rail agenda. “In fact, it could benefit the program by directing grants to a more narrow section of projects that have the most support,” she said.

The America 2050 study said the northeast holds the most potential for high-speed rail because of high population, existing rail lines and connecting service, and intense congestion on roads and airports that need relief.

The study says the four most suitable routes for high-speed rail, based on potential demand, are New York to Washington, Philadelphia to Washington, Boston to New York and Baltimore to New York. Todorovich noted that incoming New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo supports high-speed rail.

Other areas the study considers ripe for high-speed rail are the Chicago region and the Los Angeles and Bay areas of California.

The America 2050 document laid the ground for the US High Speed Rail Association plan presented at the conference. Projects would begin in the busiest corridors known as mega regions and then gradually spread to wider regions so that many cities could benefit.

“Our plan sets high standards for state-of-the-art dedicated track, advanced control systems, elegant multi-modal train stations, and top-of-the-line 220 mph trains connecting major cities together,” the association stated. “Our plan calls for a support network of 110 mph trains connecting smaller cities and towns together with the high speed system.”

Some high-speed rail will be defined as 90 to 110 miles per hour because tracks will be shared with freight and commuter service, according to the America 2050 report. Speed on less congested tracks would be 110-150 mph and on tracks solely for high-speed trains would exceed 150 miles per hour, the report said.

Focusing high-speed rail initially in the northeast, Chicago and California makes sense, said Stephen Van Beek, president and CEO of the Eno Transportation Foundation, an independent non-profit organization that studies transportation.

But he said there are many challenges to high speed rail, including political and financial support desired from multiple state and local jurisdictions the rail lines would cross.

Advocates say that high-speed rail would be best served by getting a dedicated source of revenue, such as from fuel tax or user surcharge to help pay for construction and maintenance of the system.

In pushing high-speed rail, Obama pointed to jobs being lost to China and to countries in Europe that can deliver workers more efficiently.

China, with the world's fastest growing economy, is also in the forefront in high-speed rail with service that will exceed 40 lines by 2012. Its trains can exceed 200 miles per hour.

Van Beek is not sure that keeping up with China or any other country will motivate the United States and its leaders to move full bore on high-speed rail.

“It worked in the space race, I'm not sure it works with this,” Van Beek said. China, for instance, is in a stronger financial position than the United States to venture into the expensive high-speed rail sector, he said.

In Europe, one motivating factor for high-speed rail is that gasoline prices exceed $7 per gallon, Van Beek said.

Todorovich said a case for high-speed rail in the U.S. can be made on population growth alone.

“The US will add 120 million more people by 2050 and we will require additional ways to move them around,” she said. “We can expand our highway system or choose alternative transportation such as high-speed rail.”

See Also

Are Electric Vehicles Leaving Mass Transit in the Shadows?

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