United States | December 2, 2013 at 11:28 am

A Better Way To Travel: Why Isn’t the U.S. Investing In High-Speed Trains?

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Thanksgiving is a holiday that encourages thoughtful reflection about the various aspects of our life for which we are grateful. It is also a holiday of travel, annually reinforcing a glaring weakness of the country that the government refuses to address. Under the watchful eye of Dwight Eisenhower, the United States built a labyrinth of freeways across the nation known as the Interstate System. Airports are now a staple of every major, and minor, city in the country. Since World War II, the overdependence on those modes of transportation has led to some unintended consequences that has made building a dependable, effective intercity high-speed rail (HSR) an exigency. However, Washington’s stagnant position on the issue is largely a result of a misconceptions based on a series of exaggerated or false criticisms.

For Thanksgiving, a remarkable 43.4 million people will travel over 50 miles to celebrate the occasion with around 38.9 million electing to drive, according to AAA. Such a surge in cars on the road leads to immense traffic delays and inconveniences. INRIX, a traffic services provider that offers apps and tools about traffic information, predicted that driving in the cities with the worst Thanksgiving traffic would, on average, delay the trip 28.55 percent. Flying, with all its expenses and unpleasantries, is not an attractive, or in some cases plausible, alternative. Yet, what is the average American to do? With such limited transportation options, American citizens are forced to decide between two undesirable, environmentally harming choices.

Although Thanksgiving highlights this upsetting phenomenon, the problem exists at all points of the year and will only be exacerbated as the U.S. population grows. The United States cannot simply rely on selling more cars and creating new roads to solve the transportation issue. Andrew Holland, a Washington-based expert on energy, climate change, and infrastructure policy, pointed out that while, “The Interstate Highway System has been successful in linking the country together…it promotes sprawling, auto dependent development—which essentially outsources a major cost (fuel) to consumers.” For this very reason, a paper produced by America 2050, a national infrastructure planning and policy program on a broad range of transportation, sustainability, and economic-development issues, recommended, based on the criterion of metropolitan size, distance, transit connections, economic productivity, and congestion, instituting high-speed rail in the Northeast, Midwest, Texas, and California.

The benefits of faster, more efficient train systems are enormous. As articulated by the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, these trains address a variety of problems plaguing America. With ubiquitous examples of the negative effects of climate change, high-speed trains would reduce our national oil consumption and emission. Through constructing the new rail infrastructure and manufacturing new rail cars, millions of jobs will be added to the economy. Since the trains are powered by clean electricity from renewable energy sources, they will provide a freedom from oil dependence, strengthening the national security risk. Lastly, a new, improved train system will provide congestion relief and a convenient, comfortable way to travel without hassles or delays. So, why has there been little political movement on the issue?

First, there is a general stigma associated with passenger trains because of the fallacy that they are incredibly expensive, requiring taxpayer subsidies. People have decried the supposed $53 billion cost of implementing intercity, high-speed rail insisting that, as Thomas Sowell wrote in the Albany Herald, “Spending for high-speed rail when the national debt is exceeding the total value of our annual output is world-class chutzpa. It is spending that is speeding us toward bankruptcy.” Here, Sowell is intentionally ignoring the great double standard of the HSR debate: government subsidization. As Ben Goldman correctly asks: “What is it that makes HSR off-limits for government spending, while the construction and maintenance of the interstate highway system was undertaken at such great federal expense?” The Congressional Budget Office calculated, “In 2007, the public sector spent $146 billion to build, operate, and maintain highways in the United States.”

Second, people argue that HSR is not suited for the United States. For instance, Robert J. Samuelson wrote, “The reasons passenger rail service doesn’t work in America are well known: Interstate highways shorten many trip times; suburbanization has fragmented destination points; air travel is quicker and more flexible for long distances.” Despite sounding sensible, Samuelson is wrong because he neglects to consider the future in crafting his argument. As the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) rightly points out, during the decades that will be required to construct an elaborate network of high-speed rail, “the American population is expected to grow by at least 100 million, fossil fuel will become more scarce, and environmental concerns will require the use of less-polluting, more energy efficient modes of transportation,” which is why they conclude, “High-speed rail fits that bill.”

When assessing the cost in the present, we must consider the implications of the future. Adding a different perspective, Diana Furchtgott-Roth proclaimed in the Washington Examiner, “Some Americans admire the railroads they see on trips to Europe and Japan and think America should have similar trains. But this ignores the exceptionally different demographic and economic environments.” If Furchtgott-Ruth is right, why did Japan just offer to cover several billions of dollars in costs if it did not believe that its product would be successful? Further, APTA reports, “In the Northeast Corridor, intercity trains enjoy a market share almost equal to the airlines, and nationally, ridership on Amtrak is at an all-time high.” It is safe to say that the excuse that trains do not work in the United States is overly simplistic and not applicable.

Finally, people exclaim that there is no political or public support for HSR, which is why its supporters overstate the benefits. Ken Orski in his Innovation Briefs characterized congressional leaders’ opinions on HSR as, “‘an absolute disaster,’ and a ‘poor investment.’” Orski also maintained, “The president’s ambitious initiative is unraveling at the hands of a deficit-conscious Congress, fiscally-strapped states, reluctant private railroad companies, and a skeptical public.” Sadly for Orski, his statements are extreme extrapolations from reality. A poll conducted by Angus Reid discovered 49 percent of Americans support HSR while only 26 percent oppose it. In a report done by APTA, it found that the members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (T&I) and its subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials who “have been critical of the manner by which the administration has allocated the rail improvement funds” simultaneously set about “finding creative ways of financing the initiative in the hope of encouraging greater private-sector support and leadership,” which undermines Orski’s argument. Further, it is important to note that, as the Economist explains, “Airlines fear competition from high-speed rail and lobby against it.” People want a high-speed rail. The government should respond to their interest.

The U.S. government can no longer delay investing in high-speed rail. Aside from the benefits far outweighing the costs, most of the criticisms against HSR are based upon misconstrued facts. As the U.S. economy is slowly starting to emerge from its recessional shell, now is the perfect opportunity to invest in the future. When facing a disintegrating infrastructure, the United States has two choices that Ed Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania, articulated to an audience in Jacksonville: “Pay now or pay later.”

Image Credit: The Atlantic’s Andrew Golis

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