Why High Speed Rail is Right

Across the water in Great Britain, the new conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has won great attention for his cost-cutting ways as he slashes funding for health care, police, prisons, housing, and even defense.

But one area has remained immune to Cameron's sharp blade: the country's emerging high-speed rail system, including the line under development running from London to Birmingham. In fact, Cameron is expanding funding for the system.

Cameron understands what apparently few of his conservative colleagues here do, which is that investing in high-speed rail is part of a sound investment in the country's future. And while Great Britain is a different country than the United States, its conditions and challenges are not as different as one might think. High-speed rail can work in the United States, as it will in Great Britain.

Over the past month Americans have been offered two starkly divergent views on the role that high-speed rail (HSR) could play in underpinning the mobility system and competitiveness of the United States in the 21st century.

On January 25th, President Obama proposed in his State of the Union Address that the federal government commit $53 billion to building a network of high-speed rail lines that would bring this system within 25 miles of 80% of US residents by 2030. This proposal was part of a broader vision the President outlined for investments in infrastructure, broadband, alternative energy, higher education, and applied research to create a foundation for America's long-term prosperity and competitiveness.

Then last week, Florida's new Republican Governor Rick Scott announced that he was cancelling Florida's HSR project, even though the federal government had agreed to cover 90% of the project's capital cost and even while competing teams of investors were preparing proposals to cover remaining capital costs in exchange for the opportunity to build, maintain, and operate the system. Scott argued that the project would inevitably require operating subsidies and that the state couldn't afford to take this risk, given Florida's already substantial budget deficit. Scott's actions mirrored those taken last month by the new governors of Wisconsin and Ohio, who also rejected federal HSR funds for their states.

Why America is Different; Why It's the Same

Reading between the lines, essentially Scott and other HSR critics are arguing the following:

The United States is not Europe. The USA is too sprawling, too spread out, for high-speed rail to ever work. The United States is built around the car and the highway, and to pretend otherwise is to expensively tilt at windmills.

This critique misses the following. Sure, on a gross level, the USA has lots of space and is very low density. But most people in the United States live in megaregions, organized around that other great national infrastructure project, the interstates. Densities in many of these megaregions already surpass European levels.

What are megaregions? They are networks of metropolitan regions stretching from 200-600 miles across with shared economic clusters, infrastructure, and natural systems. It turns out that megaregions are too large to be easily traversed in an automobile, and too small to be efficiently traveled by airplane. In fact, the rest of the industrialized world has already concluded that HSR is the mode of choice in these places.

That's the first reason HSR can work in the United States.

The second reason is that America is still growing, and needs to direct its growth in sustainable land use patterns, which can be organized around high-speed rail. If the United States commits to full strength high-speed rail in selected megaregions, these places could re-knit around those lines, the same ways these regions formed around the interstates. As HSR lines are built as nodal anchors of robust regional and local transit networks, they have the potential to promote regeneration of older cities and suburbs and accommodate much of the nation's projected growth.

RPA and its America 2050 program are strong advocates for investing in high-speed rail, both here in the Northeast and in key megaregion corridors. RPA established the America 2050 program in 2005 to promote infrastructure investments the nation will need to accommodate a projected increase of 130 million residents by mid-century. And RPA is leading the Business Alliance for Northeast Mobility, which is advocating for HSR development in the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, DC.

Why Megaregions?

Our research has shown that most of the nation's projected growth will occur in 11 emerging megaregions in every area of the United States. America's megaregions currently contain 75% of the nation's population and economic activity. All of these places will have at least 10 million residents by mid-century, and the largest of them, the Northeast megaregion, stretching from Maine to Virginia, will add 18 million additional residents on top of the 52 million already here by 2050.

As most Northeasterners know, much of Interstate 95 between Maine and Virginia is already heavily congested for much of its length, seven days a week. And the I-95 Corridor Coalition forecasts that most of this critical highway corridor will experience gridlock conditions for much of the day within the next generation. In fact, some experts have predicted that if current increases in truck traffic continue, much of the metropolitan interstate system in the Northeast and other megaregions will have no room for automobiles. So if you think your grandchildren will drive or take a cheap bus to get from New York to DC a generation from now, "fuhgettaboutit!" And there are only limited opportunities to widen critical stretches of I-95 since it is bounded by dense urban and suburban development for most of its length.

A similar story exists in the Northeast's heavily congested airspace, and in its airports. While expanding the airport capacity is still necessary, high-speed rail would provide another route for medium-range travelers and give the overall transportation system in the Northeast more flexibility and needed redundancy.

It is important to note that high-speed rail works only in megaregions - and, further, all megaregions are not equally suited to HSR service.  To identify where HSR makes the most sense, America 2050 has produced two major research reports, titled Where High Speed Rail Works Best (2009) and High Speed Rail for America (issued in 2011) which identify criteria that should be used to prioritize HSR routes. These reports conclude that high-speed rail makes the most sense in the Northeast, California, the Chicago Hub region of the Midwest, Florida, and a handful of other places.

America 2050 National Rail Corridor Rankings Map
America 2050 Scoring of National Rail Corridors from High Speed Rail in America

The View from Abroad

Ten European and four Asian countries have already built extensive HSR networks. The European Union is planning to expand its HSR network to include the rest of central and eastern Europe, and several developing countries -including India, Brazil, South Africa, Vietnam, Morocco, and others-- are also planning or building their own HSR systems.

Some commentators have suggested that only socialist or authoritarian countries such as China are building these systems. But as the actions of Prime Minister Cameron show, countries such as the United Kingdom, with conservative, market-oriented leadership, are moving forward with HSR investments. The long-term mobility and economic benefits of HSR are far too great to abandon the program.

In Britain, as in Japan and several other countries, these projects are being pursued as Public-Private Partnerships ("P3s") in which private investors are providing a quarter or more of the total capital costs, and projects are running on a break-even or profit-making basis under private management. This is a line of action that has not been fully explored or explained in the press or within most political debate.

What matters is that when fully realized, a national network of HSR routes serving the nation's megaregions, including the Northeast, has the potential to provide the same kind of backbone for a 21st century national mobility system that the interstate highways did in the late 20th century. In so doing, it could provide a foundation for a dramatic expansion of the economy of most of the country, underpinning America's competitiveness and livability for decades, as the Interstates have over the past half century.

These investments must, of course, be complemented by new capacity in key highway corridors, airports, seaports, broadband, water, and other infrastructure systems. But along with these other investments, HSR could create a framework for metropolitan and megaregion growth and development that will allow us to compete successfully with the other industrialized and industrializing countries now making similar investments.

Growing the Future

Given the setbacks HSR has had in Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio, it may seem like a lost cause. But it is important to put those setbacks in perspective.

Several times before in American history - beginning with Thomas Jefferson's national development plan in 1808 - American presidents have produced visions like the one promoted by President Obama for the nation's future infrastructure development, usually organized around the latest cutting-edge transportation technology. For Jefferson, it was canals; for Lincoln it was railroads; and for Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower it was limited-access highways. In virtually every case, nay-sayers and political detractors fought these investments, and in some cases delayed their implementation by decades. In every case, however, these visions were largely realized, often a generation or more after first being proposed.

Franklin Roosevelt's proposal for a national limited-access highway system, for example, which he first put forward in 1938, took 18 years to be realized. And that only happened when President Dwight Eisenhower embraced the idea. Even Ike had trouble convincing a reluctant Republican Congress to enact a gas tax to pay for his proposed National Defense Highway Act. (And this only happened when Ike cloaked the idea in the national defense concept.) And when they did finally pass this legislation, the Congress cut the amount of the President's proposed gas tax so that it was not adequate to build Ike's envisioned coast-to-coast interstate system.

Only when portions of the system began to be built did broad public support force Congress to enact the additional gas taxes needed to complete the President's bold vision. We all know how the story ends, with the Interstates being completed over 30 years and their subsequent transformation of the nation's landscape and economy over the next 60 years. Ironically, although the National Defense Interstate Highway System was never used in the nation's defense, it did underpin a five-fold increase in GDP after 1956 that enabled the US to sustain the defense budgets needed to win the Cold War.

America is poised for a transformation of similar magnitude, underpinned by a series of nationwide networks of high-speed rail lines focused within megaregions. It may take a generation or longer for President Obama's vision to be realized, but the process has begun. There will be setbacks along the way, like the one last week in Florida, but with the support of people of good will, who care about the nation's future, it will happen.