The population of the United States is expected to grow by 130 million by 2050. Sustaining the nation’s prosperity in the 21st century will require that we create new capacity in all of our major infrastructure systems. Of special concern will be the need to move people quickly and reliably between America’s metropolitan regions –where 80% of Americans live and work. Already the interstate highways and airports in these places are extremely congested, with few opportunities for expansion. Faced with similar challenges, virtually all of America’s global competitors in Europe and Asia are building vast new high-speed rail (HSR) systems. Until recently, the U.S. lagged in developing its own HSR plans. This changed in 2009 when President Obama insisted that $8 billion in stimulus funds be dedicated to initiating the nation’s HSR system. And this week, Vice President Joe Biden announced in Philadelphia that the Administration is requesting $53 billion to expedite the development of this system, with the goal of bringing 80% of America’s growing population within easy reach of the HSR system within 25 years.
Now some naysayers in Congress and the media are criticizing the Administration’s plans, saying that high-speed rail won’t work in America: that it’s too expensive and that America is not suited for high-speed rail. Until recently similar arguments were made in the United Kingdom, which is now moving forward with its own HSR system.
And while critics might be tempted to dismiss comparisons with international examples, we are more similar to Europe and Asia than some might think. The Northeast Corridor is 457 miles long and features a population of 50 million, which is the same size and distance that the UK’s new High Speed Two line will eventually cover. The new Conservative government of the UK is building the High Speed Two line even as it pursues austerity measures in other areas because they know it will yield profound economic returns: from job growth, to tourism, to a boom in station-area development. If you were to overlay a map of the Northeast Corridor over Europe, Boston to Washington would be the same distance as Brussels to Berlin. The Northeast corridor also features a strong rail culture, and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor rail services generate $350 million in profit every year.
In California, the high-speed rail line between Anaheim and San Francisco will cost $42.6 billion. This is undoubtedly a lot of money, but it is also less than half the $100 billion it would cost to construct 3,000 lane-miles of highway, five new runways, and 90 new departure gates that will be needed if high-speed rail is not built. In the Northeast Corridor, we would have to add seven new lanes to I-95--making it a 15-lane highway--to provide the same capacity as just two high-speed rail tracks. There is simply not enough room to build seven more lanes of highway through our cities, towns, and countryside.
On Tuesday, Vice President Biden reiterated the message from President Obama’s State of the Union address—to stay on top, America has to out-educate, out-innovate, and out-build the competition. The administration’s plan to invest $53 billion in high-speed rail over the next six years is critical to maintaining America’s competitive advantage in the decades to come and to meet the mobility needs of a rapidly growing population.
We have reached an exciting juncture in our nation’s development. The President has laid out a strong vision for America’s personal and economic mobility in the 21st Century, focusing on densely-populated metropolitan regions where high-speed rail will be faster, safer, and cleaner than other modes. While we take steps to reduce our deficit and streamline the federal government, we must continue to promote investments that will generate well-paying jobs today and form the backbone of our economy in the future.