How to Keep High-Speed Rail Alive

Amid disappearing funding, a new report looks at how high-speed rail can still happen in the U.S.

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Brian Snyder / Reuters

High-speed rail was one of the marquee projects of the 2009 federal economic stimulus, already garnering roughly $7.5 billion of the $10.1 billion that Congress has directed to the program since then. Two years later, there’s significantly less financial love for the idea. A transportation and housing bill for next year initially had no money for high-speed rail, but the Senate Appropriations Committee squeezed in $100 million at the last minute. It’s something, but far short of the additional $8 billion President Barack Obama had hoped to get for 2012.

With funding drying up and the economy still running at a slower pace, hugely expensive projects like high-speed rail would seem doomed. But according to a new report, high-speed rail is not dead. “High-Speed Rail: International Lessons for U.S. Policy Makers,” published today by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, argues that high-speed rail can become a reality by tightening focus and thinking more creatively about how the projects are funded and managed.

Thirty-nine states have already submitted applications to get a piece of the original $10.1 billion. Those funds are focused on six key corridors, but the report suggests that even that number may be too ambitious. Authors Petra Todorovich, Daniel Schned and Robert Lane argue that the focus should be narrowed down to just two projects: one in California and the other along the Northeast Corridor.

“While some regions may not be positioned for high-speed rail today, the Northeast and California Megaregions have the population density, congestion, and projected growth that make investing in high-speed Core Express service most feasible,” argues the report, which was written in conjunction with the Regional Plan Association.

By 2050, California is expected to have a population of 62 million, and the Northeast Corridor is expected to reach 70 million. These populations, and the cities within these regions, are only becoming more ideal for this type of transportation, according to Armando Carbonell, chairman of the Department of Planning and Urban Form at the Lincoln Institute.

“These areas are right for high-speed rail and could be effective demonstrations,” says Carbonell. “They are most like the places that have been successful with high-speed rail. If you look at densities, they’re quite comparable to western Europe.”

Using federal money to fund what would be two very regional projects, though, is likely to spur anti-rail rhetoric. The report looks at ways to raise the money to build these projects without relying so heavily on the federal government.

“To the extent that high speed rail is going to be focused initially in California and the Northeast Corridor, it really should have much of its funding close to home,” Carbonell says.

The report proposes a number of ideas, including gas tax increases, surcharges on rail tickets and even transitioning from a per-gallon gas tax to a distance-based approach calculated by vehicle-miles traveled. Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt has suggested the more regional approach of raising the gas tax in California and the eight states within the Northeast Corridor.

While California’s north-south rail project falls entirely within the state’s borders, the Northeast Corridor treads into a multi-state jungle of jurisdictions. There’s no real entity managing the entire corridor. Carbonell concedes that there are some organizations and advisory committees that aim to serve that role, but none have the teeth to push policy.

“To operate a multibillion dollar project, you really need more stability and capacity to do the management,” Carbonell says.

The report calls on the federal government to pass legislation “to enable the creation of publicly chartered infrastructure corporations capable of entering into public-private partnerships for corridors that span multiple states.”

This public-private partnership approach has worked for rail projects in England and Taiwan. The report looks at a variety of high-speed rail projects around the world, and finds a number of financing, operating, and design models to follow. Mixing public and private entities to build and operate rail projects of this magnitude may be the only way to enable these expensive projects to take shape, according to the report. A separate authority, like the California High Speed Rail Authority, might best be charged with developing and managing the tracks, and private companies might be better able to actually build and run the trains.

There are no clear solutions. Despite a voter-approved bond act worth $10 billion and another $3.6 billion from the federal government, California’s roughly 800-mile project is expected to cost $43 billion. Estimates for a new Northeast Corridor high-speed rail line start at $89 billion. With just $100 million expected from the federal government next year, keeping the train’s momentum up will be a challenge. Carbonell argues that progress will continue.

“The thing with generational investments,” he says, “is not to get discouraged over setbacks.”

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.