|First, I want to quote from both President Obama and VP Biden - these guys get it when it comes to HSR. It is a sea change from the last 25 years of refusal to speak openly and honestly about our nation's transportation needs.
"My high-speed rail proposal will lead to innovations that change the way we travel in America. We must start developing clean, energy-efficient transportation that will define our regions for centuries to come," said President Obama. "A major new high-speed rail line will generate many thousands of construction jobs over several years, as well as permanent jobs for rail employees and increased economic activity in the destinations these trains serve. High-speed rail is long-overdue, and this plan lets American travelers know that they are not doomed to a future of long lines at the airports or jammed cars on the highways."
He nailed it. This quote has it all - energy independence, job creation and long-term economic growth, and relieving congested airports and freeways. Joe Biden's quote is equally as good:
"Today, we see clearly how Recovery Act funds and the Department of Transportation are building the platform for a brighter economic future - they're creating jobs and making life better for communities everywhere," said Vice President Biden. "Everyone knows railways are the best way to connect communities to each other, and as a daily rail commuter for over 35 years, this announcement is near and dear to my heart. Investing in a high-speed rail system will lower our dependence on foreign oil and the bill for a tank of gas; loosen the congestion suffocating our highways and skyways; and significantly reduce the damage we do to our planet."
I don't know who was writing their speeches, but they clearly understand the case for HSR.
That case is made strongly and powerfully in the HSR strategic plan document (PDF, 3MB). It is one of the best arguments for HSR that I've ever seen. This administration is serious about HSR. The plan includes a good overview of the history of rail funding in America, explaining that we have spent over $1 trillion on roads and airports in the last 50 years but have starved rail - even though, as the report makes clear, high speed rail is one of the best methods to move people over distances from 100 to 600 miles.
The report also recognizes the need to update the FRA's regulations to make HSR more of a possibility in this country - current regulations require trains to be unusually heavy, which makes it difficult to import existing "off the shelf" train technology or to achieve high speeds in an energy efficient way.
The heart of the plan is a three-pronged approach to funding HSR using the following "tracks" - shovel-ready projects (including engineering and EIR prep); "corridor programs" to support HSR corridors where planning and engineering work has already been done but that aren't yet shovel-ready; and "projects" to help new HSR planning efforts get off the ground.
It's a smart approach to the issue, which also neatly ensures that there is some clear process by which competing projects will be judged on their merits. It is true that not every project will be a TGV-style bullet train, but as Bruce McF explains, that's not a bad thing:
High Speed Rail does not work by being the fastest mode of transport on the planet. The fastest mode of transport on the planet is the Rocket. After that the Supersonic Plane. After that regular Jet Aircraft ... which, should be noted, is the mode that has commercial passenger operations ... then short-haul commuter jets, then prop planes, then ... I'm not sure what is next. Sooner or later we get to bullet trains.
High Speed Rail works be being fast enough so that it can offer competitive trip speeds, and then leveraging the other competitive advantages of rail over air and car transport to carve out a successful market niche.
How fast is fast enough depends on the distance between two cities....
Raise the top speed to 110mph and the effective trip speed to the 80mph-90mph range, and for most non-insane drivers a train trip begins to be faster than driving. This is the "Emerging HSR" class of HSR. When you take an existing rail corridor and upgrade it to take faster than conventional trains, this is the first step up from there. 110mph here is a limit for a specific class of upgraded level crossings.
Raise the top speed to 125mph and the effective trip speed to the 90mph to 110mph range, and for all non-insane drivers, a train trip of 2 to 3 hours begins to be significantly faster than driving. This is the "Regional HSR" class of HSR. 125mph here is the limit for trains relying on conventional signaling with lights and information next to the track ... beyond 125mph, signals have to be brought into the cab.
In short, major changes in transportation habits, energy consumption, and economic patterns can happen just by boosting the speeds of trains in key corridors (Seattle-Portland, the "Triple-C" corridor in Ohio, Chicago-St. Louis, etc) to between 110 and 125 mph, speeds cars cannot match and thereby bringing the other benefits of trains clearly to the fore.
In corridors where air travel is currently king - SF-LA, or the Northeast Corridor - true bullet trains are the ideal solution. Already the Acela has 40% of the travel market on the NEC. In Spain, where the Madrid-Barcelona corridor has long been one of the world's busiest air routes, the AVE bullet trains have taken nearly 40% of the market share there in just over a year of operation.
It would be ideal to build bullet trains in every proposed HSR corridor. And eventually we will get there. But we don't need to dive right in to the deep end of the pool, especially when we can quickly and easily provide a kind of high speed rail along many of the nation's key corridors.
Of course, such a balanced approach also has political merits. There may be little appetite in Congress, especially among the contemptible Senate Blue Dogs, for spending billions on bullet trains in just a few corridors. Would Claire McCaskill or Evan Bayh vote for money that'll only go to the Northeast Corridor and California - or will they vote for money that will help their states get high speed trains, even if they're not bullet trains?
Such a balanced approach drew the frankly uninformed criticism of Matthew Yglesias:
My take on this is that the most promising projects on the merits, from a federal point of view, are probably those that upgrade the existing Northeast Corridor (where we know demand exists) and those that connect to the Northeast Corridor since the existing passenger rail corridor extends the utility of the new link. The Chicago Hub Network and the California Corridor concepts strikes me as very important for the long-term future of their regions, but for it to be useful will take a lot of time and money. I assume that the relevant state-level politicians for the Gulf Coast and South Central Corridors aren't going to be interested in ponying up the sort of state funds that would make these projects competitively viable, and that may be for the best since I think those corridors may be a bit ill-conceived. It seems strange to build so much track in Texas and not manage to link Houston with Dallas.
This is a pretty flawed way to look at things. What Yglesias proposes is in fact the model Clinton eventually adopted. In 1993 he proposed a broad national HSR plan, but by the late '90s he decided to just focus on upgrading the NEC and rail was left to wither around the country.
Yglesias is wrong to say that we should prioritize the NEC and connections to the NEC. Significant improvements in speed and carrying capacity can be made in the Midwest with a few billion dollars, and the California project need federal cash infusion now to ensure completion by 2018. All of those will revolutionize rail transportation in America to a much bigger scale than upgrades to the NEC. Too much focus on the NEC is one of the primary reasons for the lack of passenger rail upgrades and improvements around the country. It's time we took HSR national.
And with President Obama's plan, that is exactly what will happen.
Now, to make sure this all gets funded. Virtually everyone who has looked at Obama's plan has saidn "that's great - but is $13 billion enough?" The answer is no, and the question of whether Obama's financing plans will be enough was the question the LA Times tackled in Friday's editorial:
High-speed rail networks might very well be the "smart transportation system" of the 21st century, as President Obama declared Thursday. The trouble is, we're using a very 20th century method to pay for them....
"Now, all of you know this is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future. ... It's been happening for decades. The problem is, it's been happening elsewhere, not here," Obama said, referring to countries such as France, Japan, Spain and China that have impressive bullet-train networks. But there was something he failed to mention: With the exception of China, whose government can spend any way it likes, all of these countries impose steep taxes on gasoline. The taxes have the dual purpose of providing the funding to build public transit and encouraging people to ride it because they make driving prohibitively expensive. Gas taxes in the United States are minuscule in comparison.
Instead of raising the money to pay for his vision, Obama proposes to fund it with debt. So does the state of California, where voters last November approved nearly $10 billion in bonds for the San Diego-to-Sacramento train Obama aims to support. That's all well and good, except that the California train alone is expected to cost in excess of $40 billion. Obama's $13 billion over five years won't go far in building a national network that would cost hundreds of billions. So where's the rest of the money going to come from?
The LA Times is basically calling for a higher gas tax to be part of the upcoming transportation bill, and to fund passenger rail - including HSR - through that mechanism.
I strongly support that concept. I don't oppose using debt to build trains - long-term infrastructure projects are the best use of debt there is, and it's hard to make a case against spending $50 billion or so on a national HSR network when over $1 trillion has been spent to bail out well-connected Wall Street bankers - but we DO need a higher gas tax, and it ought to be used solely for improving mass transit, with passenger rail at the center.
A higher gas tax would also help provide long-term stable funding for high speed rail, just as the federal gas tax provided the funds to build out the Interstate Highway System (which took nearly 40 years to complete), instead of making HSR projects dependent on a highly unstable annual funding appropriation from the Congress. The moment Republicans take control of Congress or the White House back from the Democrats, which is a distinct possibility over the next 10 years, HSR funding would be in serious jeopardy.
President Obama is likely to tread very carefully and cautiously here. Despite the cries of "socialist!" from his right-wing opponents, Obama is a moderate Democrat who has tried hard to avoid alienating swing voters. His tax policies are designed to cut taxes for the lower and middle-class while raising them for the upper class. That's the right move for income taxes, but the moment he proposes a gas tax increase, he risks the possibility of giving fuel to the right-wing attacks and pissing off swing voters.
A higher gas tax is a very smart and necessary policy for this country. But it's also a political decision that the president is going to weigh with an eye to the 2012 election. I'm far from convinced Obama will support it, but it's something he ought to do.
Finally, there are some other obstacles to consider. Here in California, where advanced planning is under way for our bullet train (some elements of the project are shovel-ready now, but most others won't be until around 2012), we've already seen NIMBYism - "not in my back yard" - rear its ugly head. Specifically on the Peninsula, the region between San Francisco and San José, where wealthy communities like Palo Alto are balking at upgrading an existing rail corridor to accommodate HSR. Although very little land acquisition will be necessary here, and hardly any homes will be taken - maybe a few backyards will shrink in size - their primary objection is to the fact that the tracks would be above-ground, with grade separations (overpasses) above cross streets. These wealthy homeowners think that looks "ugly" and demand a tunnel, which would add maybe another $5 billion to the project cost.
Their claims are ridiculous, but they have the money and the time to pick a huge fight. Two of the cities already joined a lawsuit against the California High Speed Rail Authority's EIR, and even if that gets tossed out of court, it racks up the legal bills and delays the project.
This may well happen in other states, where people cling to a 20th century mentality of what urban life should be like. Even on the Peninsula, where residents consider themselves to be environmentally minded and concerned about global warming, they have decided that they prefer to fight rail in a vain effort to preserve a 1990s-style urban landscape instead of taking the necessary steps to reorient their communities for a sustainable 21st century. Old habits and old values will die VERY hard.
I've spent a year closely watching and writing about the high speed rail project here in California. It has widespread public support, but the question is whether that support will be enough to bring down some of the obstacles that have frustrated HSR in the past. From NIMBYism to reluctance to raise the gas tax or raid highway funds, high speed rail has some challenges ahead of it.
The fact that President Obama so strongly supports HSR may help deal with those obstacles. The question going forward is actually the same here as it is with so many other issues the Obama Administration faces - will he be willing to do what is difficult but necessary to produce real change, or does he prefer consensus even if it doesn't actually provide the fundamental and long-term changes we need?