Will Stimulus be Enough to Bring High-Speed Rail to America?


Rail station in Shanghai, China (photo via thetransportpolitic.com)

About a year ago, TreeHugger interviewed Andy Kunz, an urban designer, New Urbanist and rail advocate. Kunz laid out a pretty convincing case for high speed rail as the solution for a number of problems facing American transportation, including outdated infrastructure, peak oil (or "energy independence," depending how you look at it), out of control carbon emissions, and more.

In fact, Kunz said, we were at a fork in the road, and building a new national high-speed rail network was the "single most important action we can do to get us off the oil and change the direction of the nation for the better." TreeHugger decided to catch up with Andy Kunz for another conversation about rail and high-speed rail in America, now that it seems the idea is finally catching on. TreeHugger: Andy, a lot has happened since we last spoke about a year ago. The concept of high-speed rail in America, which a year ago was on very few people's agendas, has now become an almost mainstream idea. Transit ridership is way up all over, and a high-speed rail line has been approved in California. As an advocate for high-speed rail, how have you experienced the events of the
past year?

Andy Kunz: With great excitement! It's really amazing what has changed and how quickly! It's truly an unbelievable time in the history of America - unfolding as we speak. I am of course very saddened to see the suffering this recession is causing, and it's unfortunate that we have to go through such a big disaster to change our ways. It would be so much easier and less painful if we just planned these changes during normal times.

Nonetheless, the fact that so many people are discovering rail as a great form of transportation is spectacular! We are entering a new green era that includes green living, green energy, and green transportation. Out of this I see a huge opportunity to fundamentally change America for the better with high quality rail transportation and great walkable communities for everyone.

TreeHugger: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka the recently-passed stimulus package) allocates almost $18 billion for public transportation projects, including $8 billion for high-speed rail. According to reports, the new administration is also planning to budget an additional $1 billion for high-speed rail projects every year for the next five years. Rahm Emanuel is calling high-speed rail Obama's "signature issue." Has high-speed rail's time finally come in America?

Andy Kunz: I would say yes, high-speed rail's time has finally come to America. I hope this does become Obama's "signature issue", and I'd love to help him plan out the national system. But if we are going to have high-speed rail anywhere near the levels that are operating today across Europe and Asia, (and under development in 12 more countries), we need to be thinking in much larger numbers to build this new system.

Recently, President Obama was in Florida talking to the people and said: "You go to Shanghai, China right now, and they've got high-speed rail that puts our railroads to shame." He went on to say how America has always had the best infrastructure in the world. I agree, and am happy to hear such talk coming from Washington where rail has pretty much been ignored for many decades in America.

TreeHugger: How much can be done with these budgets? What projects do you anticipate will be promoted with the new funding?

Andy Kunz: It depends on how they are planning to divide up the money. If they are putting the majority of the money into the California system as the Federal match, then it makes total sense. The California system will be funded by about a third each from the state, the Federal government, and private industry. The benefit of this will be the California project getting built faster, which will then help spur other states into building their own systems and the new national system will emerge.


Last year, California voters approved a $40 billion project to link up the state's major cities via a network of high-speed trains. (image via California High-Speed Rail Authority)

This money could also be planned for a couple of starter systems in a few key corridors. France started this way by building their first high-speed line in the busiest corridor - Paris to Lyon, a distance of 240 miles. This was their first piece of what is now a national system.

As a comparison, the California high speed rail project is about 800 miles and budgeted to cost $40 billion, which divides down to around $50 million per mile. So if the $8 billion was spent in just 2 corridors at $4 billion each, that will only buy 80 miles of high speed rail in each region. Two of our busiest corridors are Washington DC - New York City (200 miles); and New York City - Boston (175 miles), so you can see this money wouldn't even build half of both of those corridors, unless this money is being used to attract private funding, which could make up some of the balance.

If the money is being divided up among a number of states/regions, very little will get done other than some studies and minor upgrades to existing systems, which is certainly a start, but not really the funding levels and speed at which we should be doing this.

TreeHugger: While the Obama administration is investing in new and existing transit systems, existing public transportation services are being cut back around the country, and California's budget woes may even threaten the implementation of its newly approved plan for high-speed rail. Will the stimulus money be sufficient to get the country's existing transit systems back on track?

Andy Kunz: It should be, if we focus on what's really needed. Keep in mind this stimulus is only part of what will fund the transition to a green transportation system for the country. We have road budgets that can be drastically cut to help fund trains. We can also use some of our massive defense budget to fund the train systems since getting the nation off oil is certainly a matter of national security. Plus the big transportation reauthorization bill is coming up for renewal later this year - which will set the transportation spending priorities for the next 5 years.

We do need a master plan for rail at the national level as well as regional and local levels all across the country.

We really should also be looking at peak oil more seriously and how we currently use around 20 million barrels of oil each day in America. According to peak oil experts, the amount of oil we will be able to consume will be reduced by around 9-10% each year starting now. So we have to approach our rail planning to build up our passenger capacity at the same rate as our oil is reduced.

In other words if we have 9% less oil each year, that means that 9% of trips in cars, airplanes, trucks, etc will not be able to be made. So if we are to maintain mobility and things like shipping food to our stores, we have to be building rail capacity to expand at that same rate (or faster) as oil depletion. This is the sort of planning we need to be doing on a national scale all the way down to community levels in our rail capacity.

TreeHugger: Back to the stimulus plan - in that same package, some $27 billion was allocated for new and existing highways and bridges. Why are we still giving more funds to transportation projects that favor the private car?

Andy Kunz: Because some of us are still stuck in the past, and still think building more roads is going to solve congestion. Anyone who understands peak oil and climate change realizes that we have reached the end of the car/sprawl culture and we have to move on to build the new train/walkable urbanism culture.

Granted some of the stimulus money is going to fix bridges before they collapse like the one in Minneapolis, which is probably a good idea, but there are plenty of road projects being put forward that no longer make sense. The sooner we build more rail systems, including better freight rail, the sooner we can relieve some of the pressure from those failing bridges by taking a lot of the car and truck traffic off of them.

Pouring tens of billions of dollars into the auto manufacturers doesn't make sense either, unless it forces them to retool completely into manufacturing trains. In the 1940's, they stopped making autos completely and retooled their factories in less than 4 months to build the equipment needed for the war effort. They can do the same today to build all types of trains from high speed to metros, to streetcars.

We need a new business for America to get in to, and we have a huge need for many new trains, so instead of buying them from foreign manufacturers, we should be building them right here in America and re-energizing our industrial base. Train manufacturing could become a huge industry, larger than the US auto industry ever was, and create millions of green jobs while at the same time converting our nation to real sustainability.

More on high-speed rail:
Obama Plans Massive New High-Speed Railroad
Guide to Green in Obama's Budget: Dept. of Transportation
New Deal 2009: 3 Plans to Rescue the Economy and the Earth via Public Transportation

Tags: Air Pollution | Commuting | Public Transportation | Trains | Transportation

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