Interstate High Speed Rail Funding

Productivity gains earned from building the world’s best transportation helped make America the only 20th century superpower. Today, other advanced nations have blown past our passenger rail and rapid transit, while matching its highway and airport systems. America’s under-built High Speed Rail, Regional Rail and Rapid Transit systems and its under-maintained Highways are constraining economic competitiveness and bad for the environment. America has enough muscle fix this, but must get its federal priorities back in alignment.

Between 1970-2020, America added 130 million residents, primarily in its Top 100 Metro Areas that generate over 70% of its $19.4 trillion GDP. Despite 330 million population and a faster population growth rate than China, the world’s richest nation has underinvested in passenger rail since 1978. It has underinvested in rapid transit since 1981. It has underinvested in highway maintenance since 1995.

Once having the world’s best passenger transportation modes, America has worsening airport & highway congestion and bridges crumbling in some places. Its Knowledge Workers’ travel time is longer and travel productivity is lower within mega-regions than Global Economic Competitors in Europe and Asia.

In terms of infrastructure, America’s airports are holding up well via upgrades completed or underway in support of 9 of the 27 busiest airports in the world. When the FAA NextGen Air Traffic Control project completes by 2022, jets will spend a larger percentage of time in the air making revenue than burning fuel on the ground. Advanced jet technology is improving fuel efficiency and reducing smog and GHG emissions per mile of flight.

Americans are troubled about passenger transportation infrastructure. Their Top 25 airports remain congested with regional flights due to inadequate HSR and Regional Rail alternatives. America has only 10 metro areas with Metro Heavy Rail systems, but only 5 have sufficient mileage & routes to be a good alternative to driving. America has destroyed most streetcar tracks, under-built Metro Light Rail systems. In too many places America is settling for Commuter Rail service when high frequency Regional Rail is a better solution. America has over 55,000 bridges classified as “Structurally Deficient.

For decades, Global Economic Competitors have invested 4-7% of GDP to build 10-100 times more HSR, Regional Rail, Metro Heavy Rail and Metro Light Rail miles than America, while modernizing highways, airports, freight rail and seaport. Now they’re reaping the benefits described in in Part 2 of this series. Each year that America invests 1.5% of GDP or less, America’s Transportation productivity falls further behind, while spewing the 2nd highest smog and GHG emissions in the world.

The Impact of Passenger Surface Transportation Decline in America

From 1959-1966, America invested 2% of GDP in Transportation. As the Vietnam War escalated, the federal percentage Transportation investment dropped. After America’s involvement with the Vietnam War ended in 1975, America never returned to pre-war levels. Another benchmark of under-investment occurred in 1978, when President Carter proposed higher funding to deliver world-class HSR service in Amtrak Northeast Corridor. But a Democratic-led Congress did not support him. The second benchmark of decline came in 1981. President Reagan cut Rapid Transit funding relative to GDP and starved Amtrak. In 1989, President Bush I continued the same skimpy Transportation policy through 1992.

In 1993, President Clinton obtained economic stimulus funding from Congress to upgrade Northeast Corridor to hybrid Regional Rail-HSR status, but did not push to restore Transportation funding to 2% of GDP. Transportation-wise President Bush II, was similar to President Clinton, except he would not fund Amtrak upgrades. America’s only sufficiently funded transportation mode was Aviation.

While American leaders slept at the wheel from 1975-2008, Japanese, Chinese, South Korean, French, Spanish, Italian, British, Dutch, and German leaders built huge mileage advantages in HSR, Regional Rail, Metro Heavy Rail and Metro Light Rail despite having far less GDP than America.

The Brief Awakening to Stall America’s Surface Transportation Decline

President Obama did not idly watch further decline. In 2009-10, he shepherded over $15 billion investment in Metro Light Rail, Metro Heavy Rail, Regional Rail and HSR infrastructure to help economic recovery and restore a measure of transportation balance and productivity, plus additional funds for Highway repair. Those investments paid off, but were not sustained for a nation of America’s geographic size and economic scale.

In 2011, there was broad public, Chamber of Commerce, infrastructure builder, labor union, and environmentalist support to better recover from 33 years of under-investment in surface transportation. Rarely does such a diverse coalition emerge nationwide. Nevertheless, Obama failed to generate support from the Republican-led House and Senate.

After the Middle East troop draw-down in 2012, President Obama announced that Defense savings would amount to nearly $200 billion/year. He wanted half those savings to fund surface transportation projects. Those conditions allowed some Republican Senators to agree with Obama and their Democrat Senator colleagues. But despite repeated efforts from 2012-16, House Republicans denied President Obama’s proposal to fix surface transportation.

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, Interstate High Speed Rail Funding

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT)

In 2017, public polls, chambers of commerce, civil engineering, labor union, infrastructure builder, corporate and environmentalist support grew stronger to repair highway bridges, expand HSR, Regional Rail, Metro Heavy Rail and Metro Light Rail. Congressional Democrats and most Americans, including those who did not vote for the Republican President, would have cheered the $2 Trillion/10 year Infrastructure investment he proposed as a candidate. As of early 2020, the President has squandered that opportunity.

More recently, the Democrat-led House of Representatives propose $760 billion/5 years in infrastructure projects. Within the proposal, $55 billion would go to Amtrak-HSR, $105 billion would go to Transit (emphasis on Rapid Transit & electric buses), and $327 billion would go to Highways (emphasis on fixing 47,000 structurally deficient bridges). Another $1.5 billion would further develop a national electric vehicle charging network. That funding level would generate millions of good paying jobs, boost worker productivity to help GDP, lower highway congestion and reduce emissions.

Accelerating HSR, Regional Rail, Metro Heavy Rail and Metro Light Rail projects in the Northeast, California-Las Vegas, Chicago-Midwest, Florida and Texas would have the most and fastest transformative benefits named in Part 2 of this series. Airports could use more of their finite capacity on longer flights. Freight Rail capacity would increase. A lower percentage of solo-drivers on highways would make Freight Trucking more dependable and safer. Yet, the Republican-led Senate and President tabled Congressional Democrats proposal without debate or negotiation.

This is not screed against all Republicans. Always remember that Republican Presidents initiated the Interstate Highway System, saved American passenger rail by starting Amtrak, and made the first major Northeast Corridor investment. Many Republican governors and mayors want a Transportation Bill similar to that proposed by the Democrat-led House. Also note that federal funding legislation starts in the House of Representatives, then goes to the Senate and finally the President. When any party controls the House and Presidency, they usually convince the other party leading the Senate to negotiate in good faith. When any party controls the House and Senate, they usually convince the other party’s President to negotiate in good faith.

After the Vietnam War, Democrats led the House from 1975-1994. Democrats led the Senate from 1955-1994. Democrats held the Presidency 1977-1980 and 1993-2000. This means Democrats dropped the ball on surface transportation investment from 1975-94, then awakened. Republicans have dropped the ball on surface transportation since 1995.

In 2020, its time for a Republican-led Senate and Presidency to awaken and align with the Democrat-led House to fix America’s surface transportation. America meet the productivity challenge from Global Economic Competitors and deal with severe environmental threats partially caused by inadequate infrastructure. America’s transportation needs to embrace the 21st century, rather than be punished by it.