Don't Let America Be Late for the Economic Engine of High Speed Rail

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President Obama met with transportation experts this week to discuss his proposed $50 billion plan for investing in America’s public transit, high speed rail, roads, and airports.

This kind of investment goes a long way. Analysts concluded that the authorization of a recently proposed $500 billion transporation measure could support more than 7.2 million jobs. It would also build an economy that fosters clean tech innovation, is less dependent on oil, and can compete with nations already investing in cleaner transportation.

Yet despite these numerous benefits, several candidates running for governor oppose the administration’s effort to build more train service and high-speed rail lines.  

Wisconsin, for instance, has received $810 million in federal stimulus money to connect Madison and Milwaukee by train, but candidate Scott Walker appeared in an ad saying, “If I’m elected as your next governor, we’ll stop this train.”

He might as well say, “We will get in the way of progress and turn down jobs for our state.”

Why would any leader reject an offer to build 21st century infrastructure that will connect centers of commerce, generate economic growth, and transport people in a clean, efficient way?

As I write in my new book, In Deep Water: The Anatomy of a Disaster, the Fate of the Gulf, and How to End our Oil Addiction, public transit and high-speed rail are powerful tools to help end our oil addiction and reduce the pollution that causes climate change. They are building blocks of our clean energy future, and they are drivers of economic growth.

President Obama is presenting America with an opportunity to advance the nation’s transit system, much like President Eisenhower did with our highways in the 1950s. As Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wrote on his blog, “Can you imagine if Ohio or Wisconsin or any other state had said, ‘No thanks—we don’t think that highway thing is going anywhere.”

Burying our heads in the sand won’t help America’s competitiveness. I recently returned from China, and I can assure you Chinese leaders are not saying no to the fast-moving future. China is spending 9 percent of its GDP on infrastructure, while America only invests 2 percent. You can feel the difference on the ground.

When I was in China, I took a high-speed train from Nanjing to Suzhou. The train left exactly on time, which anyone who rides the train along America’s East Coast knows is worth noting. It was almost surreal to be sitting in a Chinese train going up to 180 mph while talking by cell phone to the United States without losing service even as it passed through tunnels. 

I take the Amtrak ACELA frequently from New York to Washington. That is the best train in the U.S. right now, but the top speed is only about 110 mph and it can do that just for short stretches.  And cell phone service?  It fails not only at every tunnel but often for reasons undetected. Here is one of the high-speed-rail stations I passed through:


From Shanghai, I took the maglev (magnetic levitation) train to the airport.  Its max speed is almost 300 mph.  I traveled during a time of day when they keep the train slower for neighborhood reasons, so we maxed out at 185 mph. But even at that speed, the countryside whisked by, and we left nearby cars in the dust.

China already has 4,000 miles of high speed rail lines and plans to add 10,000 more miles in the next 10 years. Right now, America only has the ACELA, which covers 456 miles in 7 hours. China’s Wuhan to Guangzhou line covers 600 miles in 3 hours. High-speed rail doesn’t make sense everywhere in the U.S., but surely we can do better than this in our densest corridors.

How has America—with our track record of innovation—ceded this growth to China so quickly? California Governor Schwarzenegger is a strong supporter of a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. But when my colleague saw him in Shanghai recently, the governor was pleading for China to bid on California’s rail projects, not the other way around. America is missing an enormous economic opportunity by failing to supply our own market in high speed rail.

Many opponents of public transit claim that it requires too many subsidies. But that position ignores the fact that all transportation systems are subsidized by the government. Right now, highways get about 80 cents of every federal dollar spent on transportation.

Yet 80 percent of the economic activity in this country occurs in the nation’s hundred largest cities. If we devoted a proportionate amount of our transportation dollars toward building and improving public transit in these cities, we’d have more options for supporting the kind of clean, energy-efficient economic growth that can genuinely improve our standard of living.

That is the kind of forward-looking investment America needs right now—especially if we are going to keep pace with China.