High speed rail U.S.A.
Opponents of high speed rail make several points about its viability: rail is a “19th century” mode of transportation; rail would be under-used and therefore would need massive subsidies to function; infrastructure in the cities connected by high speed rail is not sufficient to make this form of transportation efficient or cost-effective; even if rail is eventually necessary, right now it is impractical due to the ready supply of cheap oil. Others point to the fact that the contracts for these rail systems will largely go to foreign companies, thus raising questions about their stimulative effects here at home.
I think these are all very good arguments. And if we had an endless supply of oil and gas, and thus an endless source of cheap fossil fuels for our car-culture, I think that they would be good enough arguments to discourage any support of federal high speed rail projects. However at some point I believe we will be short enough on fuel that it will become cost-prohibitive to commute or travel long distances in cars. Having a rail infrastructure in place at that point will be instrumental in shifting toward a less car-driven economy. Local efforts to remake cities along more pedestrian and mass-transit lines can be more focused since the big inter-city travel routes will be developed already.
Of course there are difficulties. Rail suffers the same disadvantage alternative energy suffers: that is, heavily subsidized fossil fuels and a modern infrastructure built entirely around the use of fossil fuels make any effort to compete nearly impossible – at least not without further subsidies. Removing subsides for fossil fuels could help level the playing field, but I don’t see that happening ever really. No politician wants that blood on their hands. Nor do I see a sensible carbon tax replacing the silly and probably doomed attempt at cap and trade.
Furthermore, the rail infrastructure currently in place is woefully underdeveloped. One wonders if the $8 billion dollars proposed to launch the 13 new rail corridors would be nearly enough to pay for the ambitious plan. Federal dollars won’t cover the entire tab, and with states in financial dire-straits, its uncertain any of these projects would ever be finished. Nor is it certain that there would be any funds remaining to support the local transit systems necessary to make the corridors viable alternatives to driving.
Nevertheless, I think that if we don’t invest in high speed rail ahead of time, we’ll end up regretting it down the line. The projects proposed by Obama won’t be finished for over a decade at least, and in ten or twenty years gas prices may have transformed the car culture already. On the flip side, it’s possible that other technologies will have been developed to supplant the gas-powered car. But even if electric cars take over the roads, how long will they be a viable option if other energy sources aren’t found to replace coal? Wind and solar are hardly up to demand, and nuclear power is still (unfortunately) anathema to many policy makers (though I take hope in Obama’s rekindling of the idea in his SOTU).
I remain divided on this issue, worrying that the government’s investment in this will backfire, but also understanding that these sorts of massive infrastructure projects are hard to pull off otherwise. Certainly Europe’s high speed rail infrastructure has been driven by high fuel costs and dense population centers, but it has also been a huge boon for European tourism. I think a robust rail system in the United States may have similar benefits down the road – certainly once gas hits $7 dollars a gallon or higher, which isn’t such an unrealistic prospect.