High-speed rail still a dream in U.S.

By MARA GRBENICK, MEDILL NEWS SERVICE, Written for UPI  |  May 22, 2012 at 6:30 AM
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WASHINGTON, May 22 (UPI) -- The first thing you hear is a charge -- a high-pitched, electronic whine and within minutes the whirring settles into a roar as the speeding train whizzes along the track at 200 miles per hour, streaking across the landscape. The emotion of the bullet train hasn't escaped the American imagination.

Reality is less dreamy.

Last week U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray Lahood told California lawmakers in Sacramento that the Obama administration would rescind $3.3 billion in federal grants for high-speed train if the state didn't act by July to appropriate $2.7 billion in state funds toward the project. If the California plan derails, it could have broader implications for rail funding. Legislators may become more wary of high-speed projects because they are expensive and politically hard to justify.

Several years ago that the federal government made a splashy investment in high-speed rail, designating $10.1 billion in economic stimulus money for projects around the country. California emerged as a leader in development.

As U.S. President Barack Obama's ambassador for high-speed rail, Lahood toured a California Siemens light-rail vehicle manufacturing plant in February and said the administration wanted to see high-speed rail become a reality in the state.

But the state's projects have proven contentious and, at the request of Republicans in Congress, the California projects are under review by the Government Accountability Office. Though there is no date set for release of the report, its findings are to address project cost estimates and financing, GAO Senior Evaluator Richard Jorgenson said.

High-speed systems are often idealized as the optimal form of passenger rail. Both supporters and non-supporters of so-called bullet trains say that high-speed rail may be the best but it's the pinnacle -- something worth working toward.

That's because, done right, high-speed trains are fast, economical, and efficient and relieve congestion on roads and in airports, supporting a cleaner natural environment.

By 2030, the United States will have access to about half as much oil as is available today, High Speed Rail Association Chief Executive Officer Andy Kunz said.

This a big reason to think about alternative mass transit systems and certainly a part of why Obama has a vision that 80 percent of Americans should have access to high-speed rail within 25 years. That's a lofty goal given the tough economy, a Congress hindered by partisanship and the problems seen with projects just begun in places like California. But it's a nice vision.

The reality is weighed down by the practical. Like the federal highway system, which took nearly 40 years to build, a designated long-term passenger rail program -- not just an intermittently funded high-speed rail program -- would likely have to be established to see an effective program put into place.

Meanwhile, investments in other public systems -- buses and commuter rail -- are just as needed, if not more so, and offer greater cost-effectiveness and financial stability.

"There are more immediate and demanding problems than high speed rail. The idea that we would prescribe it as a solution that applies in every place is probably mistaken," Martin Wachs, senior principal at the Rand Corp. said.

Eventual high-speed trains will need intra-city transportation systems that seamlessly connect passengers via buses and commuter services to long-distance rail networks. That's where the investment action should be happening now, Wachs said.

That patterns in transportation in general are shifting as the cost of fuel rises support that idea. More people are utilizing public options and Amtrak said it is on pace to set an annual ridership record in 2012.

This is good, since bullet trains would require large numbers of riders and revenues to cover annual operating costs. However, moving too soon to build high-speed rail prematurely puts the projects at risk of financial instability and at the mercy of a continuous supply of government subsidies. This is what's happening in California.

To accommodate growth on standard passenger rail, Amtrak is taking a "blended approach" to high-speed rail development, embracing it where it makes sense by deviating shared track in certain spots and installing new dedicated track in other locations, Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm said.

But Amtrak's passenger service competes with another big contender -- America's freight trains. The United States has a highly developed and efficient freight rail system, which is sometimes at odds with plans to move more people by train since track is shared and freight owners need to be able to move goods reliably. This is why freight companies and railroad part manufacturers with multinational interests at stake are big spenders in lobbying Washington.

About 19 percent -- $46.5 million -- of total lobbying dollars spent on transportation last year was spent lobbying for railroads, the Center for Responsive Politics states. Passenger rail is outspent by freight within the rail sector.

Airlines and businesses that flourish on the maintenance of the interstate highways also have an interest in what's happening with rail, since high-speed rail could compete with regional flights, for example.

Looking ahead, there may be ways for airlines and railroads to work and prosper together. Volatile petroleum prices coupled with the need for more interconnectivity and ways to move a steadily growing population are starting to influence transport business models. Passenger rail may find its growth engine via another industry -- possibly airlines, some of which are looking for new ways to improve their bottom line and travel infrastructure.

Delta Airlines Inc. announced plans last month to buy an oil refinery near Philadelphia. It could give the company more control over one of its biggest input needs -- jet fuel. Virgin Trains, owned by Virgin Airlines operator Virgin Group, helps connect people from train to plane with great efficiency in the United Kingdom.

In the United States, California has good potential for diverting regional air travel to rail, said America 2050, a national initiative to meet the infrastructure and other challenges of U.S. population growth by the year 2050.

A recent study by the group indicated that 45 percent of flights that operate out of the Hollywood-Burbank Airport could be served by high-speed rail, including Oakland, San Jose, San Francisco and Las Vegas.

This is mostly hypothetical for now.

"It's plausible, but not planned, to substitute rail for air," Wachs said.

That is a matter of business innovation in the private sector, he said.

Although comparisons between passenger railroads and the federal highway system are frequently made, there is no official federal program for passenger rail with taxes or other mechanisms to fund it. It's a harder sell to taxpayers since not as many people would benefit from a high-speed or even passenger rail network as have benefitted from the highway system.

Opening more opportunities for the private sector to compete with Amtrak could be a more feasible goal than a full government program, a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee representative said. Though some of the advantages of rail are clear, more competition might lead to greater efficiency and lower costs, and that could help to build more citizen good will around rail investments.

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