Is High-Speed Rail the Future or an Expensive Version of the Past?

When President Obama announced the winners of $8 billion in high-speed rail grants last month, it revived a debate over the wisdom of investing in this transportation mode. While high-speed rail advocates applauded the move, detractors called it irresponsible and impractical.

High-speed rail supporter America2050.org said the investment is a “critical step toward implementing the long-term infrastructure vision our nation needs to pull itself out of the Great Recession and position itself for long-term competitive growth.”

But it’s a only a very small step, according to a February 10, 2010, article by Steve Hargreaves of CNNMoney:

“Most of the $8 billion in high-speed rail funds that President Obama awarded last month will not be used for high-speed projects, but rather [for] improvements designed to make existing lines faster,” he wrote.

“Only $3.5 billion is being spent on truly high-speed rail, a sum that’s not remotely close to what’s needed to build a 21st century rail network. The money is going toward two projects — one in California and the other in Florida — that have yet to begin construction.”

Whether the effort to bring a high-speed rail network to the U.S. is too expensive or impractical remains to be seen, but it seems a worthy effort nonetheless. High-speed rail is a travel staple elsewhere in the world and has shown promise in its limited appearance in the Northeast Corridor (i.e., the Acela trains, which are currently as high-speed rail as we get in the U.S.). 

But, as Hargreaves writes, will the price tag be too much — $100 billion just to build out the DOT’s proposed network and possibly five times that if they want the trains to run in excess of 150 mph?

In the Hargreaves article, Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, is quoted, “Rome wasn’t built in a day. What you’re seeing is a growing program of pieces that fit together.”

But Ronald Utt of the Heritage Foundation, one of the nation’s most outpoken critics of the high-speed rail plan, told Hargreaves, “It’s the most expensive way to move passengers from A to B. Of all the things the government has to do, are they really going to say, ‘Yeah, let’s have high-speed rail.’ ”

Hargreaves reports that Utt is skeptical California or Florida will be able to raise the matching funds to get the projects done.

Supporters want to see $50 billion dedicated to high-speed rail in the next transportation bill, which is slogging its way through Congress.  In these economic times, that’s likely to be a tough sell.

It’ll be interesting to see the outcome of this debate. My guess is that one solid success story — particularly if it’s a high-profile project in Florida or California — will go a long way toward accelerating the push for high-speed rail in the U.S. If most or all of these initiatives falter, high-speed rail will slide back into the shadows of U.S. transportation planning policy. 

Below is an excerpt from the section on high-speed rail in PSMJ’s 2010 AEC Firm U.S. Market Sector Forecast (which, by the way, is PSMJ.com’s book of the month for February):

As part of the ARRA legislation, the Obama administration committed $8 billion to “jump-start the process of developing a comprehensive high-speed intercity passenger rail network.”

On October 6, 2009, Federal Railway Administration Commissioner Joseph Szabo announced that the agency received 45 applications from 24 states totaling approximately $50 billion – more than six times the available amount. California alone requested $4.7 billion.

High-speed rail, a major player in the transportation scene internationally, is hot in the USA – at least in theory. And if these projects take shape, it could mean significant work for firms across the spectrum of the AEC industry.

This newfound U.S. commitment to high-speed rail is not only attracting attention from cities and states across the country; the world is noticing.

Ansgar Brockmeyer, head of public transit business for Siemens (Berlin, Germany) told the New York Times, “[The U.S.] is a developing country in terms of rail. We are seeing it as a huge opportunity.”

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that the U.S. expects significant private investment in high-speed rail in coming years, with firms from Europe and Asia factoring heavily in its development. “Companies involved in (overseas) high-speed rail are in the U.S. right now,” he said in July. “I think you’ll see private investment in high speed rail from Europe and Asia, not just the United States.”

Some of the 24 states that have submitted applications for federal high-speed rail funds are aggressively making a case for why they deserve the funds. Florida, for example, launched a marketing campaign dubbed “Life at 128 mph.” Officials say they could complete construction of a high-speed rail line by 2014.

Utah formed an alliance with three other western states to support its proposal. The group says projected population growth justifies high-speed rail service that would run between Salt Lake City and Denver.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report in mid-October entitled “Developing Viable High Speed Rail Projects under the Recovery Act and Beyond.” It offers guidance on effective use of the funds, potential challenges, and the government’s ongoing work on the issue.

“Several principles could guide the effective use of the Recovery Act funds and any future federal investments in high speed and other intercity passenger rail. These principles include establishing clear federal objectives and stakeholder roles, clearly identifying expected outcomes, basing decisions on reliable ridership and other forecasts, and reexamining how intercity passenger rail service fits in with other federal surface transportation programs,” the report states.

“In addition, determining which, if any, high speed rail projects may eventually be economically viable will depend on an accurate determination of such factors as ridership potential, costs, and public benefits. These projects also face many challenges, such as securing the significant up-front investment for construction costs, sustaining public, political, and financial support; and resolving outstanding liability issues.”

The GAO says its role is to ensure that states meet the guidelines established for successful implementation and to oversee the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) as it doles out and manages funds.

Not everyone is on board the bullet train bandwagon.

Ronald Utt, writing for The Heritage Foundation (Washington, DC), says that high-speed rail is a “fantasy.” Writing on the web site of the oft-called “conservative think tank,” Utt says the costs being floated in various high-speed rail proposals are understated and the need to upgrade infrastructure to accommodate the systems is financially untenable. He also complains that stimulus money designed for high-speed rail would likely be diverted to freight rail infrastructure and, indirectly, to Amtrak.

“Sooner or later voters catch on to the misrepresentations HSR proponents use to advance their cause: In 2000, Florida voters approved a ballot initiative (absent any cost estimates) to build an HSR, but in 2004 they reversed that vote once the excessive costs became apparent,” Utt wrote.

 This type of opposition doesn’t appear to be slowing the momentum of high-speed rail.

International Examples of High-Speed Rail
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, High-Speed Rail Strategic Plan

 

Japan

France

Germany

UK

China

U.S.

Date of Initiation

1964

1981

1988

2003

2007

1969/2000

System length (route miles)

1,360

1,180

798

70

588

457

Top operating speed (mph)

188

199

186

186

186

125/150

HSR ridership (millions)

300

100

67

8

No data

11

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