High-speed rail: Stimulus dollars wisely spent?

President Obama's $8-billion investment in high-speed rail may be a giant step forward in the country's transportation system, but experts question if it will gain traction among car-loving Americans.

Michel Euler/AP/File
Two high-speed trains – one German (l.), one French – arrive in Paris. US rail advocates foresee a 17,000-mile high-speed system by 2020.

President Obama wants to put a multibillion-dollar down payment on a national high-speed rail network. But will Americans leave their bucket seats to ride those rocket rails in sufficient numbers to justify the investment?

For years, while the United States has focused on its highway and air-transport systems, passenger rail has been an afterthought. Now Mr. Obama has an Eisenhoweresque plan to spend $8 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to build 13 high-speed rail corridors in 31 states. He also plans to budget an additional $1 billion each year over the next five years. Many say it's a needed "first step."

"Our most congested corridors have to have high-speed rail," says Jack Schenendorf, vice chairman of a blue-ribbon commission that studied America's transportation needs in 2008. "Obviously we can't build an unlimited amount of highway capacity. It's necessary to get people out of their cars and into these high-speed trains."

Who's riding the rails now?

Riders on Amtrak, America's pas- senger rail service, rose steadily from 21.5 million riders in 1999 to peak at 28.7 million in 2008. A weakening economy and lower fuel prices brought the number of riders down to 27.2 million last year, still the second highest in Amtrak's history.

Amtrak's Acela – connecting Boston, New York, and Washington – provides the only existing high-speed rail service in the US. It grew steadily through 2008 to 3.4 million passengers. But last year, ridership dropped below 2007 levels, partially as a result of cooling business travel.

What will $8 billion buy?

The initial investment will pay to build, upgrade, and plan about 7,100 miles of track, including 1,340 miles of new track, 4,724 miles of upgrades to existing track, and planning for 1,032 more.

Building a national network could eventually cost more than $100 billion and take decades, Mr. Schenendorf says. The US High Speed Rail Association, an advocacy group, envisions a 17,000-mile high-speed system to be completed by 2030. But that would require sustained support from Congress and the backing of future presidents.

How fast is 'high-speed'?

Top speeds could reach 220 m.p.h. on the California line that would go through Los Angeles and the San Francisco area, but will be substantially less in the other corridors. None is expected to be as fast as European and Japanese high-speed trains.

What will be the impact?

According to some projections, the $8 billion might be expected to produce about 320,000 jobs and roughly $13 billion in economic benefit.

A nationwide high-speed rail network could mean 29 million fewer car trips and 500,000 fewer plane flights annually, according to a 2006 study. That would save 6 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, the equivalent of removing a million cars from the road annually.

Can high-speed rail compete with air and auto?

In Europe and Asia, high-speed rail lessens congestion at airports and on highways.

In the US, the main impact is expected to come on 100- to 600-mile routes. For example, a five-hour, 300-mile trip from St. Louis to Chicago could be cut to about three hours and 40 minutes by high-speed rail, potentially reducing the need for short-hop jets and taking thousands of cars off the road, says Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, which represents train riders.

Will it be a boondoggle or a boon?

The plan is "a giant step forward in the transformation of our nation's transportation system," says Howard Learner, whose Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center supports high-speed rail.

But others are leery of what they see as a plan that won't lure Americans from their cars and therefore may not pay off.

"To believe this makes economic sense, you'd have to be foolish," says James Moore, director of the transportation and engineering program at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "In the US, autos cover shorter trips better and airlines capture longer trips. That doesn't leave room for high-speed rail to compete."

Schenendorf sees a need for high-speed rail in the US, but says that future funding will be the key.

While the Obama initiative is a "positive first step," he says, it's just "a drop in the bucket of what the nation will need to get the kind of high-speed rail network it needs. It will take a lot more money to get these systems built out."


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