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February 9, 2011

Can the U.S. remain a competitive world power without high-speed rail?

by Janna Starcic - Also by this author

High-speed rail projects and the money needed to pay for them have been eliciting strong reactions from all sides. Tuesday's announcement of the Obama Administration’s plan to spend $53 billion over the next six years on rail infrastructure projects produced a flurry of responses, some praising the plan — others deriding it.

House Transportation Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-FL) and Railroads Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) were of the latter camp, expressing their "extreme reservations." “This is like giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio,” Mica said in a statement.

Mica also criticized the Obama Administration's handling of the first $10.5 billion in rail grants and likened Amtrak to a "Soviet-style train system."

Shuster's critique included the following: “Rail projects that are not economically sound will not ‘win the future.’ It just prolongs the inevitable by subsidizing a failed Amtrak monopoly that has never made a profit or even broken even. Government won’t develop American high-speed rail. Private investment and a competitive market will."

These responses reminded me of an article that ran in Newsweek last fall, in which  columnist Robert J. Samuelson stated that high-speed rail projects were a "waste of money."

He cited California's plan for high-speed rail as a particular gamble considering the states' budget issues and, for the huge investment, which could approach $200 billion for construction of 13 corridors, there wouldn't be "any meaningful reduction in traffic congestion, greenhouse-gas emissions, air travel, or oil consumption and imports."

I recently spoke with Petra Todorovich, director of America2050, which published a report identifying U.S. high-speed rail corridors with the highest ridership potential. During our interview, I asked her to comment on Samuelson's assertion that high-speed rail spending was wasteful.

"I think it’s inaccurate and shows a real failure of imagination. If we only make the investments that we traditionally have, how do we expect America to change and adapt to the demands of a 21st Century economy?" Todorovich said.

She went on to say how the Interstate Highway System was a tremendously important investment for the last 50 years of growth in our country, which fueled economic growth during that period. "For the next 50 years, we have a different set of circumstances we are dealing with — greater globalization, higher energy costs, the need to respond to climate change, changing market demand and demographics," she said, which would require moving away from investing in the outdated highway vision.

While the Interstate Highway System was the forward-looking vision for President Eisenhower, so too is President Obama's high-speed rail plan.

Do you feel that America will risk losing its status as a competitive world power if we don't embrace this new vision for high-speed rail?


In case you missed it...

Read our METRO blog on bus mirror misconceptions here.

Janna Starcic

Executive Editor

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  • Steve Ly[ February 10th, 2011 @ 10:20am ]

    Serious problems with the California High Speed rail project have been identified by numerous observers: In April 2010, the State Auditor released a report stating the High Speed Rail Authority risked delay or an incomplete system due to "inadequate planning, weak oversight, and lax contract management." In January 2010, the non-partisan Legislative Analyst's Office told legislators the Authority's business plan lacked sufficient details, inadequately addressed funding and market risks and that it's timeline was "uninformative." It also said it's funding plan appeared to violate the law: State Senator Joe Simitian of Palo Alto, a supporter of High Speed Rail "Done Right," expresses his continued frustration with Authority's lack of responsiveness in addressing issues raised by the State Auditor, the Legislative Analyst's Office and other non-partisan organizations here: The UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies report says the data used by bullet-train planners is so "unreliable" that it is impossible to predict whether the project will be successful or lead to "severe revenue shortfalls." To view the study, click here: Unless CHSRA promptly addresses these issues, the agency will not have any credibility going forward.

  • LAS[ February 10th, 2011 @ 3:27pm ]

    It's a great, albeit rhetorical, question, Janna. Yes, we need HSR in this country, and the only question is how to make it happen. Steve Ly mentions many legitimate obstacles, and countless politicians are telling us why it simply can't be done. OK, I guess that China, Japan, Germany, France, Spain, and even Turkey are just smarter than us. China alone has already built more than 4,000 miles of HSR with plans to spend nearly $300 Billion by 2014. We all paid $0.184 per gallon in gas taxes to finance our $286 Billion Highway Trust Fund (SAFETEA-LU) over the past 5 years. Is it really so difficult to imagine that we could allocate a portion of this notoriously wasteful spending toward HSR, along with some State and (mostly) private enterprise funding to make this happen? To our elected leaders....Please stop telling us why it's so hard to do (we know it is), and start telling us how we are going to get it done.

  • Jan van Eck[ February 10th, 2011 @ 10:41pm ]

    The hidden reason that high-speed rail (contrasted to "higher-speed rail") is not going to work in the US the way it does in Japan or France is that the US has a large-mammal population: bison, elk, moose, herds of range cattle. There would have to be secure fence walls along both sides of the trackage - at an extra cost of at least $4MM a mile, plus a large budget to continuously patrol, monitor, and repair the fencing. Then you need underpasses to allow for animal migrations. The costs of all this are not figured into these budgets, yet easily add 50% to capital and operational budgets. A buffalo strike means a train wreck, and a 200-mph train implies a 200-mph train wreck. That will be a non-survivable event. A 79-mph derail is still a survivable event. If you want ultra-high-speed, better to stick with aircraft.

  • DAG[ February 17th, 2011 @ 6:21am ]

    As any engineer or economist knows, the results of an analysis depend heavily on the assumptions make before starting. If you assume: 1. America's population will stabilize at or near its current 310 million, 2. The price of oil will stabilize in and around its current value, 3. The general standard of living and affluence of our children and future generations will continue to match or exceed our current levels, 4. Suburbanization of America will continue to thrive and city centers will continue to lose population and decay, 5. Our concerns should only address the problems of our lifetimes, then indeed you will conclude as Mica, Schuster and Samulson have. I just don't believe any of those assumptions are valid and that public policy shouldn't be made on the basis of more realistic assumptions. "No new taxes" has us in a corner. We need to consider specific use taxes. France has a gasoline tax of almost $7 per gallon; we have 50 cents max in a few states. If we want to go to war, we should have an income surtax to pay for it and a draft so that our generation really weighs the burden of the activities.


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Janna Starcic

Executive Editor

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Managing Editor

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