Region Forward Blog

The Morning Measure: High-speed ambition? Part 1

Dec 21, 2010


Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has made the advancement of high-speed rail in the U.S. a top priority of his and has shown his commitment to the effort by revoking funding after Governors-elect in Wisconsin and Ohio made it clear they would redirect the funding to other transportation projects (translation: more money for roads). The Secretary’s commitment is highly laudable but true high-speed rail still has a ways to go before it becomes a reality in the United States.

An article in TIME magazine earlier this year exemplifies one of the main problems for American high-speed rail: inflated expectations among the general public. There is an all-too-common media portrayal that a nationwide high-speed rail system is on its way to completion thanks to the approximately $10 billion ($8 billion at the time of the TIME article) that has been allocated to the effort. The author somewhat misleadingly implies that French or Japanese style bullet-trains are right around the corner.

If only it were that cheap and that simple. $10 billion or so and a few pilot projects will not create the true high-speed systems that are in operation and expanding in Europe and Asia. Implying so may do more harm than good with raised expectations only to be dashed when the results are not equivalent.

The last large-scale national surface transportation initiative that took place in the United States was the Interstate Highway System which began in the 1950s. The 1950s. That ambitious system has since been completed and many parts of it are now routinely congested resulting in lost productivity and economic output increased stress and environmental degradation. Transportation is one of the primary sources of greenhouse gas emissions and a new report shows that U.S. states are not reducing their transportation-generated emissions. The U.S. population expected to reach 400 million by 2050 and we desperately need viable alternatives to driving lest or we face an increasingly congested and climate-altered future.

The problem is not the highway system itself but the neglect of other forms of surface transportation. We’ve really put all our eggs in one basket: the highway system and that basket is overflowing. We’re living feeling the effects of a failure of long-term vision. Unfortunately because of the extent of the neglect it’s going to take a lot of money and time to catch up with the rest of the world.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Part 2 is available here.

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