Let’s face it, high-speed rail does not have many successes to point to in the USA.
American companies created many of its technologies, and the Amtrak Metroliner was considered revolutionary when it began service in the Northeast in 1969. But the United States has, in recent years, fallen well behind countries ranging from France (1,645 miles of high-speed rail in operation) to China (about 15,530 miles).
This has not been for lack of effort. Major federal and state efforts go back as far as 1965. High-speed rail was supposed to get a jolt in 2009 when then-President Barack Obama included $8 billion in seed money in his stimulus package.
But this month’s decision by California — the last state actively considering a high-speed rail system — to cancel most of its plan to link Los Angeles and San Francisco means that the money will largely go unused. In fact, the Trump administration is already pushing the state to return unspent funds.
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This lack of progress has critics in full self-congratulatory mode. But high-speed rail remains a viable, even necessary, option in select, densely populated parts of the country. The Northeast Corridor could use an upgrade from the Amtrak Acela, which can do 150 mph but goes through significant stretches where a lower speed is required. Parts of the industrial Midwest, Florida, Texas and California would also benefit immensely.
Why can’t the United States achieve what more than 20 nations have? Cost is one obstacle, but another is that one of rail’s main competitors — vehicular traffic — is so wildly subsidized.
Most highways were built decades ago when costs for land and rights of way were a tiny fraction of what they are now. Today, estimates of the value of the Interstate Highway System alone run into the trillions of dollars.
And yet, while high-speed rail is expected to pay market-rate dollars for expansive land at today’s prices, the nation’s highway system is run as if it descended from heaven. The federal government’s 18.5 cent gasoline tax does not even cover its share of the maintenance, let alone expansion. It certainly does not account for the hundreds of billions of dollars of value that highways provide to motorists each year.
High-speed rail would stand a better chance if governments would inch their way in the direction of a market-based road system, including wider use of smart tolls.
The estimate for time Americans waste in traffic is a $87 billion a year, a staggering and growing sum that helps make the case for high-speed rail.
The worse traffic gets — and it certainly will with the growth in the number of cars — the more people will need an alternative. To some degree, this could be short-haul air traffic. But many airports already have substantial capacity issues and hassle factors.
In the end, high-speed rail is the most practical and attractive solution in certain parts of the country, if only our leaders were willing to sustain the long-term public and private investments needed to get it built. The setback in California shouldn’t be the end of the line.
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