Obama's stimulus is banking on high speed rail

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In a town hall meeting last week, a member of the audience asked President Obama what could be done to improve America's infrastructure. Touching on numerous issues, the President repeatedly returned to the theme of high speed rail (HSR), noting that an HSR system could solve many of the country's problems, from pollution to transportation to sprawl. Summing up, Obama stated:
I'd like to see high speed rail where it can be constructed. I would like for us to invest in mass transit. Because, potentially, that's energy efficient and I think a lot more people are open now to thinking regionally in terms of how we plan our transportation infrastructure.
The President has made HSR development a key element in his economic stimulus plan, setting aside $8 billion for the initiative, and budgeting a further $1 billion per year for the next five years. In all likelihood, most of this money will go to regional high-speed rail projects, as a widespread revamping of the national rail infrastructure would be expensive and difficult to organize.

Amtrak, the passenger rail system, is an administrative enterprise, not a constructive one, and it tends to founder when it comes to large building projects. According to noted rail consultant Alfred Michon, Amtrak's only major infrastructure project, the electrification of the Northeast corridor, was "a poorly thought-out boondoggle."

This is not to say that Amtrak hasn't considered the potential of HSR. In a 2008 interview, Amtrak's President, Alex Kummant, stated that, if Congress appropriated $40 billion, an HSR system might be a possibility. However, even that exorbitant sum is not likely to overcome the hurdles facing an Amtrak-based HSR program. Simply speaking, the company is not prepared to build such a line. As Michon quipped, "If you dropped a high speed rail program on the desk of Amtrak's President, he'd shoot himself."

Even before the stimulus package, regional HSR lines were well on the way to becoming a reality. The Federal Railroad Administration has designated eleven corridors for HSR development; these areas are authorized to receive targeted funding for development. Four regions seem to be leading the pack in the quest for shovel-ready packages: California, Florida, Texas, and the Midwest.

The biggest complaints about passenger rail have centered around issues of financing. The common perception is that rail costs the government an outrageous amount of money. In truth, however, it is actually among the cheapest forms of transportation, both in terms of energy expended and in terms of the cost to taxpayers. Kummant noted that, on a passenger by passenger basis, the average car on the highway costs taxpayers approximately $500-$700, while an Amtrak passenger costs approximately $40. Air travel costs even more, with public funds supporting airports, airline security, the FAA, and a host of other hidden charges.

While America's rail system will never be profitable, the same could be said of every other form of transportation; frankly, if the costs of air or automobile travel were passed on to the consumer, they would be prohibitively expensive. On a level playing field, not only is rail travel less expensive than the alternatives, but it also yields numerous political and environmental dividends. Offering reduced need for highway and airport expansion, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, reduced fuel expenditures, reduced dependence upon foreign oil, and increased mobility for passengers, rail travel ultimately may offer the key to a cleaner, more efficient future.

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