Friday, June 14, 2013

OpEd | National | High Speed Rail: How Much More Convincing Do We Need?

Many of my classmates have already talked about the need for investment in a national High Speed Rail (HSR) system. It is a much-discussed topic in urban planning and transportation classrooms. HSR even has a cheerleader at the very top level, in US Department of Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood. "This is what the American people want. If you build it, they will come," LaHood declared (Chapman, 2011)." So what will it take to convince our legislators that the time to invest in HSR projects is long overdue?   

Opponents say that no amount of ridership will cover the initial cost of creating the infrastructure, nor the continued cost of operations and maintenance. “No mass transit system in the country charges riders enough to offset the expenses of running trains—much less the cost of capital. Amtrak loses hundreds of millions a year,” says author Steve Chapman (Chapman, 2011). It’s true, trains are expensive business. They fail to acknowledge, however, the fact that every other mode of transportation in this country enjoys subsidies of one kind or another. Though President Obama did pledge to spend $13 billion in federal stimulus funds over five years to seed America’s first HSR projects, the federal government hasn’t spent that little on highways in one year since 1958 (Selcraig, 2010). Auto subsidies are simply a prevailing fact of our culture, with federally-funded road maintenance as well as mandated parking spaces taking up precious urban real estate. And we all remember when the entire national auto industry had to be bailed out on the public’s dime. Locally, much-need improvements in bike infrastructure was able to be funded by pairing the work with storm water management projects. Meanwhile, the government has provided $4.64 billion in taxpayer funds to the airline industry for cash grants and $1.65 billion in loan guarantees (Surjaputra, 2008). Yet none of these modes of transport can equal the benefits that HSR can bring.

HSR is crucial for this country because it will provide not only transportation benefits, but many others as well. It is a way to address serious environmental and ecological concerns by reducing our oil consumption and emissions. Reducing the dependence on foreign oil will free up a huge amount of the national budget by greatly reducing the need to for security spending. Here, the numbers clearly show that an investment in HSR makes sense. We use 25% of the entire world's oil supply, yet we only have 5% of the world's population. We use 20 million barrels of oil every day, 70% of it for transportation.  Of those 20 million, we import 2/3, that’s 13 million barrels per day, from foreign sources, many of which are in politically unstable regions.  We use 8-10 times more oil per person per day than Europeans, yet they have faster, easier and better mobility than we do (Association, 2012). That’s because they’ve made the jump to HSR, and it’s been shown to reduce congestion and increase mobility. Whereas in the US, “road and airport congestion cost America over $156 billion per year in wasted time and fuel (Association, 2012).”

This unbreakable bond in the US to car and air travel has caused us to fall woefully behind the rest of the Global North (and in some cases, even Global South) countries. “Of the 32 most developed nations, none has a lower percentage of inter-city rail riders than the U S, a mere 0.3 percent compared to Japan’s world-leading 27 percent (Selcraig, 2010).” This gap is only growing as countries like China, South Korea, Japan, Germany and Spain finance the construction of electrified, high-speed trains that can exceed 186 mph. And enjoy the benefits. Passenger amenities include Wi-Fi, conference rooms, cinemas, upscale restaurants… you name it. And most importantly, comfort. When talking about long-distance travel, the importance of this cannot be overstated. Especially when compared to the dehumanizing experience that air travel has become.

So it seems to me that there is certainly an extensive list of benefits to be derived from HSR. And, if our legislators could only employ some long-term thinking, the economic questions can certainly be answered.


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