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

Posted on February 9, 2011 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?


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