U.S. mustn’t squander high-speed rail funds

High-speed rail and expanded intercity rail service are important components of moving our nation toward cost-effective energy and environmentally efficient transportation alternatives. However, it will not be difficult to assess whether we have bought a pig in a poke or gotten off on the wrong track (pun intended), particularly with high-speed rail passenger service.

The first measure of true high-speed rail service is simple: How fast will the trains travel? Average speeds in Europe and Asia on main lines now exceed 150 mph. For example, the Spanish AVE service routinely travels at 186 mph and the average speed of the Shinkansen Bullet Train in Japan is 164 mph. Currently, Amtrak’s Acela in the Northeast Corridor travels at an average of 83 mph. This is not true high-speed rail service. Ignoring development of true high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor would be a monumental failure. 

People will ride high-speed rail if it gets them to where they are going faster than they can drive, and in a timeframe that is competitive with air travel. In addition to being fast, high-speed rail service must be convenient and cost-effective. If the service is slow, poorly operated, or results in a Soviet-style experience, only a limited customer base will develop.

Second, we must carefully consider where it makes the most sense to build and operate high-speed rail corridors. In order to ensure sufficient demand, the corridors must link major metropolitan areas. To successfully compete against other modes of travel, the city pairs should be far enough apart that driving is unattractive, but close enough that flying does not have a clear efficiency advantage (somewhere between 100 to 500 miles apart). Good intermodal connections and efficient local transit system distribution from rail stations are a must. Other indicators of potentially successful corridors are high concentrations of business travel and congested highways and airports. Shifting some percentage of air passengers to rail would ease airport and airspace crowding and reduce air system delays throughout the country.

The third measure of success in developing a high-speed rail system will be how the government leverages its investment.

While $8 billion sounds like a great deal of money, it is only a fraction of the dollars needed to build even one high-speed rail corridor in the United States. We have only to look at other countries that have longer experience with high-speed rail to get a sense of what these systems cost to build. In Japan, the Shinkansen high-speed rail system is being expanded by 400 miles with a total estimated construction cost of $40 billion. In Spain, a relatively small country about twice the size of Oregon, the government is committed to a national high-speed rail network that will cost more than $140 billion when it is completed in 2020. In 2009 alone, China has invested $50 billion in developing and building the country’s new high-speed rail system, and plans to invest a total of $300 billion by 2020.

Successful routes at competitive speeds should attract high numbers of riders and strong revenues. Those revenues could be bonded to help pay the cost of building the infrastructure. This model has been used in many successful rail projects around the world. With the right mix of public and private participation, the United States could leverage this federal investment to build high-speed rail corridors that are economically competitive and actually generate a profit.

If we choose successful routes, insist on true high-speed rail service, and leverage the federal dollars with public-private partnerships while limiting the investment of our tax dollars, we can create a recipe for success. If we do not meet these goals, the new high-speed rail corridor development program will be an expensive failure, and we will have lost an important opportunity to launch a new era in transportation.

Mica is ranking member on the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.