U.S. intercity rail has potential for sustainability development

Posted on May 29, 2007 by Cliff Henke

As was mentioned in the May issue, the issues of climate change and sustainability are increasingly important at all levels of government, notwithstanding the current White House occupants’ ambivalence about them. To date, however, rail’s place at the table in the U.S. has been somewhere at the far end, a situation that is the opposite of how other countries regard rail’s contribution to addressing these issues. As unfortunate as metropolitan rail strategies have been in these discussions, nowhere is this policy difference more apparent than with intercity transportation.

Europeans got the sustainability connection with high-speed rail pretty much at the conception of these services. Studies there have pointed out that electrified high-speed rail service emits less greenhouse gases than equivalent service by airlines by a factor of 10 or more. Europe gets even greener
Eurostar, the service connecting London with Paris and Brussels, Belgium, recently announced a program to make the service greener still. The plan will involve a combination of promotions to encourage high-speed train travel and a stepped-up program to interconnect European networks better, something that has become a higher priority of the European Commission as well as a growing list of Asian nations. The most recent is Taiwan, which opened its Taipei-to-Kaoshiung line this past January. They come to the same conclusion more over concerns about road-based intercity congestion and its attendant pollution and other problems than air-based travel impacts, which are virtually nil compared with intercity travel in Europe or North America.

While states and cities in the U.S. seek to build similar systems, the question of who pays is never answered sufficiently to get a line going. The federal government throws only token amounts at corridors outside the Northeast and even there the underinvestment is substantial by all measures. Nor have states been willing to fund all of it, and the private sector has never made it commercially viable all by itself here or anywhere.

In the void, a certain low-cost airline saw the direct threat and spent millions of dollars to defeat the Texas plan years ago. The same dynamic is sure to emerge again when California’s high-speed rail program goes to a referendum in the fall of 2008. Different this time?
Yet the outcome, thanks to concerns about climate change, energy security and sustainable economic development, has a chance to be different this time. The task before those advocating such a system is to attach this case for high-speed rail to this larger political train, which has become quite visible, particularly in California.

More than 70% of greenhouse gases are emitted by transportation in the U.S. Travel patterns thus become the single best chance of lowering the impact of human activity on climate change. Accordingly, if programs like carbon trading exchanges and carbon taxes are established as part of national climate change policy, these new sources of revenue must be directed at different transportation policy investments. Carbon taxes and exchange credits to pay for high-speed and regional commuter trains, as well as for streetcars in downtown circulator applications? Perhaps it’s one way out of the “who will pay” stalemate that has stalled the U.S. behind other countries so far.

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