Obama’s Grand Railroad Funk: Is High-speed Rail Losing Steam?
WASHINGTON -- Just three months after his inauguration in April 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled his vision of an expanded high-speed rail network that promised to transform much of the United States’ outdated rail infrastructure while enhancing energy security and providing environmental benefits. In his words, high-speed rail would “lead to innovations that change the way we travel in America” and be a part of “developing clean, energy-efficient transportation that will define our regions for centuries to come.”
Advocates of high-speed rail have long argued that it can help mitigate traffic congestion, reduce dependence on foreign oil, and benefit the environment. As ably demonstrated in Europe and elsewhere, the construction of high-speed rail infrastructure could also help reorient land use and spur economic development along rail corridors and around stations, most of which will be in city centers. If implemented correctly, high-speed rail also facilitates urban living—which recent surveys show is particularly attractive to younger generations—by offering connectivity to other modes of transportation, including buses, light rail, taxis, and even bicycles. Well-planned and well-integrated mobility systems reduce the need for automobile ownership, which in turn reduces the number of vehicles spewing greenhouse gases and other pollutants into the air. So it was little surprise that the transportation policy community in the United States was excited to learn of Obama’s intention to promote high-speed rail in his State of the Union address last week.
Unfortunately, beyond setting a target of 25 years in which to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail, the president said little about the subject, which makes one wonder about the strength of his commitment. On the other hand, it is important to recognize that it was one of a small handful of infrastructure initiatives to which the president devoted any time in his speech. Time will tell to what degree and where the president is willing to advocate for his vision. Republicans, who now control the House, have promised to make significant federal spending cuts across the board, and have come out strongly against the president's vision for high-speed rail, arguing that such projects are simply too expensive and deliver only marginal benefits. Recently elected Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin have turned down nearly $1.2 billion in federal funds intended to support high-speed rail projects in their states. Although the United States possesses daunting challenges in repairing and maintaining its existing infrastructure—from sewers and bridges to roads and railways— high-speed rail had initially seemed an initiative for which the president would fight. Now it is not so clear. If the Obama administration lacks enthusiasm, this is not good news for European and other international companies with high-speed rail expertise who have been working for many years to establish a presence in the United States. California’s High-speed rail Authority, for example, has memoranda of understanding with Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain in Europe and China, Japan, and South Korea in Asia, to tap expertise and experience regarding safety and equipment. The Chinese and Japanese governments had gone so far as to offer help with funding the California high-speed rail network in an effort to win contracts to build, operate, or maintain that system. The stark reality is that the president's high-speed rail initiative faces several daunting obstacles above and beyond partisan politics, and his speech may have reflected that. First, federal money that has been allocated to high-speed rail projects is merely a drop in the bucket and is not enough to complete even one proposed project. Nor are individual states and local governments in any position to fill the funding gap. In addition, the day after the president's speech, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office forecast that the federal deficit would balloon this year to a record $1.5 trillion. Couple that sobering news with the obvious need to address existing infrastructure concerns—the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates $2.2 trillion is required over five years—and one can see how high-speed rail projects might slip further down the list of priorities.
For now the only possibility to keep high-speed rail initiatives on track may be their ability to attract private-sector partners, which the president acknowledged. “We will make sure this [infrastructure] is fully paid for, attract private investment, and pick projects based on what's best for the economy, not politicians,” he said. Let us hope that his administration, Members of Congress, and private investors decide to board that gravy train. Brent Riddle is Senior Program Officer with the German Marshall Fund’s Comparative Domestic Policy program in Washington.
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