Where Will High-Speed Rail Succeed?

Posted on February 14, 2011 by Janna Starcic, Executive Editor

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[IMAGE]MET2highspeed-megaregionmap-2.jpg[/IMAGE]You also talk about potential growth in these cities. is high-speed rail success based on that potential?

There's sort of a paradox in that some of the regions that are more densely developed today, places that were built up around rail transit, places like the Northeast or Midwest that have strong city cores, those also tend to be places that are more challenging to acquire rights of way, thus, may be more difficult to build high-speed rail in those places even though we know the demographics and the land-use characteristics are well suited for high-speed rail. So, contrast those regions to some of the faster growing regions in the South or the West, where you may have, with the exception of California, which is pretty densely developed, less densely developed regions and less rail transit, but it may be easier to acquire right of way. And, they have the growth that's anticipated, places like Orlando, where they have 60 percent projected population growth by 2040. If it channels all future growth around high-speed rail and light rail stations, it could certainly create that land development, land-use character that supports high-speed rail.

Every region of the country is different. We are not discouraging rail investment in any particular region; rather, I think it's more interesting in the fast growing regions, the Sunbelt regions that have mostly developed around an auto-oriented mode. Could high-speed rail provide a framework for shifting more toward the center-based development approach in the coming decades? That would also be fueled by demographic trends, oil prices, the environment and so forth. High-speed rail could actually bring about a greater transformation in some of these regions that, today, may not seem as well suited for high-speed rail as the more traditional pre-World War II regions that developed on more of a center-based land-use pattern.

Newsweek columnist Robert Samuelson wrote an article last fall where he basically said high-speed rail is a waste of money. What do you think of this argument?

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?

I think the interstate highway system was a tremendously important investment for the last 50 years of growth in our country and 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 in our country where you don't have as much need for single-family homes in the suburbs. You have smaller families and you have people getting married and having children later — all of which point toward more city living and mixed-use development.

To continue to invest in a highway system that was inspired by a 1950s vision of America is foolhardy and is a recipe for us becoming a lesser world power that can't compete.

You recently appeared on a segment of a PBS show called "Fixing America." at the end you mentioned having vision and faith with regard to high-speed rail projects. Can you elaborate on how we can embrace that?

I do recognize that it's very difficult to see past the national deficit, lack of adequate revenues to pay for many of our government obligations and, because of the severe economic challenges, it's hard also for people to look past the next year, two years, when they are struggling with finding a job, or a member of their family is in tough economic times. When you are in the midst of a hard economic crisis, it's hard to look past that.

All the same, our country has traditionally been supported by people who had long, farsighted visions. From the framers of the Constitution to the infrastructure investments made during the new deal to the Eisenhower vision for the interstate highway vision, all of these policies or investments were set in place with a long-term view for America's future. And, I fear that, at this moment in time, we've lost that long-term view because the challenges at hand are so great. But if we neglect that, we really risk losing much of our economic vibrancy.

I think that what we are trying to do with our project, not just this study, but other programs focused on the need to invest in infrastructure, is paint a picture of what the benefits can be and how investments that will put us on the path toward greater economic prosperity and sustainability are needed. We don't need to pay for them all at once; there are different ways to finance capital investments so you stretch out the cost over the length of the project. We're trying to paint a picture of a success story for America that is in part built by high-speed rail.


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