Interstate High Speed Rail Rationale

Interstate High Speed Rail Rationale is more compelling than simply great infrastructure like our global economic competitors. Our population and urbanization have outgrown highways and airports. Given our population growth, America is not doing enough to reduce traffic congestion, cut smog, nor slow Global Warming.

U.S. Population & Urbanization Growing Faster Than Highway Capacity

Interstate High Speed Rail Rationale is very important, because as you’ll read later, it’s going to be expensive to build, all big infrastructure. And if its going to be expensive, it better deliver the big benefits like Highways and Airports in the 20th century.

The “Golden Era of Highway Driving” that began around 1950, ended shortly after the second OPEC Oil Embargo in 1979. In that era, cars were cheap, gasoline was cheap and new highways opened every month. The Federal Gasoline Tax covered all highway maintenance. Highway capacities typically limited “Rush Hour” to only 30-45 minutes in the morning and evening. Americans bragged about driving 70 mph on urban highway and 85 mph on rural highway. They don’t brag about those speeds as often today.

American population is growing faster than highway capacity. Pre-COVID highway congestion was also worse because America grew from 64% urbanized in 1950 to 82% urbanized by 2019-end. When you look at the U.S. Census Bureau data, population & urbanization forecasts, and pre-COVID rates of automobile purchases, things will get worse:

U.S. Population to Highway Congestion

U.S. Population to Highway Congestion; source Soul Of America

Most travel originates & ends inside regions that generate the greatest economic activity that economists call “Gross Domestic Product (GDP).” Highway and Airport congestion in the high-activity corridors of mega-regions reduces productivity. That in turn, lowers GDP and reduces job potential.

By 2050, our Top 75 Metro Areas will have 1.2 million population or larger. They increase density of 100-to-500-mile corridors in regions that demographers call “Mega-regions”, as color-coded on the America 2050 Map below.

America 2050 Mege-Regions Map

America 2050 Mega-Regions Map; source Regional Plan Association

America must dramatically increase its mobility capacity within and between metro areas in the corridors of mega-regions to prevent further loss of transportation-related productivity, lower GDP and less job creation.

Air Pollution, Persistent Health Problem Due To Transportation Emissions

Nitrous oxide, air particulates, sulphur dioxide, volatile organic compounds and hydrocarbons concentrate to form Smog above metro areas. Thanks to the Clean Air Act of 1970, fewer industries emit air particulates, volatile organic compounds, sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide. Thanks to federal regulation in 1975, gasoline-powered autos have catalytic converters that reduce nitrous oxide, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide emissions.

Most people don’t know however, that smog levels remain unhealthy. Nor are many aware that catalytic converters do not trap greenhouse gases (GHG). Consequently, the Transportation and Energy sectors remain America’s largest contributors to Smog and GHG due to:

• Metro Areas growing to 1.2+ million population, where highway congestion starts
• More people buying oil-powered cars & small trucks
• Adding more Highway lanes each year, than Rapid Transit, Regional Rail & HSR
• Development sprawl far outside urban area forces longer drives

The EPA estimated 125 million Americans live in areas of Non-Attainment for National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Moreover, persistent air pollution from oil-burning transportation is linked to chronic lung disease and therefore, rising health care costs. Most city-dwellers passively accept Stay Indoor Alerts as a way of life, rather than societal choice.

In 2020, the American Lung Association ranked metro areas for ozone pollution. This problem is a nightmare for California, Las Vegas and Phoenix, which dominate the Top 25 Metro Areas for air pollutants. Thats because warm, dry climates surrounded by mountains trap air particulates, sulphur dioxide, and volatile organic compounds and amplify photochemical reactions that produce smog.

Another insight is NYC Metro Area has 25 times the population of Bakersfield Metro Area, yet lower Smog due to having one of the world’s largest electric passenger rail networks.

Jet fuel contains a high percentage of oil burned to generate energy, but emits nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and air particulates. From 1980-2008, airline deregulation doubled regional (sub-500 mile) flights, while maintaining growth for longer flights. Regional flights became the biggest cause of traffic congestion and air pollutants surrounding our commercial airports.

Over-Dependence on Risky Oil & Risky Natural Gas

In 2011, 33 of the 48 largest oil producing nations hit Peak Oil Condition. Many economists call this kind of easy to access fossil fuel, “Cheap Oil.” Peak Oil Theory was correct at predicting that oil several hundred feet from the surface is declining.

In 2020, America had only 5% of world population, yet consumed 20% of world oil production.

In the last two decades, oil & natural gas companies pioneered technology to drill thousands of feet underwater and underground, then use a horizontal process to break tightly packed shale that unleashes oil & natural gas. The process is called “Fracking.” The industry calls the resulting oil and natural gas “Tight Oil” and “Tight Natural Gas”, respectively. By that industry creating a job boom in domestic oil & natural gas, most Americans just go along, to get along.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that America’s Tight Oil & Gas production soared to 96% of what we consume. If the trend continues post-pandemic, EIA estimates America can become oil self-sufficient around 2030.

Will the oil boom last to 2040 and is that good news? Answering the first part, Maybe. Answering the second part, only in the short term because it buys us time to build up Renewable Energies.

BP_spill_May2010, Interstate High Speed Rail Rationale

Small oil spills happen all the time. But as the NASA image above reveals for the BP Gulf of Mexico spill in May 2010, the pursuit of Tight Oil in deepwater has catastrophic risks compared to Cheap Oil close to the surface. Imagine a similar catastrophe polluting water aquifers deep underground. Minimizing the probability of catastrophic spills requires expensive technology, rigorous safety inspections and luck. That is why it is more accurate to call Tight Oil & Tight Natural Gas, “Risky Oil & Risky Natural Gas.”

Global Population Rising, GHG Emissions and Deforestation

World population is forecast to grow from 7 billion in 2012 to 9 billion by 2043. Though populations are stabilizing in the European Union, Russia and Japan, huge population growth in China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria and Mexico is driving their economies to demand more fossil fuels and wood.

The global consequences from rising demand for coal, oil & natural gas and wood deforestation are profound because their extraction processes and burning emit greenhouse gases (GHG) and smog (Ozone & particulates). Based on their volume and impact, scientists categorize carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) as the most dangerous set of GHG. Excessive deforestation for commercial wood in Brazil, Central Africa and Southeast Asia also reduced the world’s ability to absorb CO2 emissions before they reached the upper atmosphere.

Freight trucks, cargo ships and cruise ships burn diesel-fuel that emits Carbon Dioxide and Nitrous Oxide around seaports. U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that diesel fuel consumption emitted 24% of U.S. Transportation sector CO2 emissions, nearly equal to 9% of total energy-related CO2 emissions in 2019.

Airplanes burn oil-based jet fuel that emits Carbon Dioxide and Nitrous Oxide around airports and high in the atmosphere, where it’s most dangerous at trapping heat. The World Resources Institute provides this equally insightful chart of CO2 Emissions by Nation:

Global Warming Effects Have Arrived

Global warming is negatively impacting our world. Mostly man-created, GHG emissions have driven surface temperature of the Earth 3 Fahrenheit degrees higher than 1900. Higher air and water temperature has doubled the speed of permafrost and glaciers melt. Forest fires, droughts and hurricanes thrive on higher temperatures.

Even worse, the EPA forecasted global temperature rising 4-6 degrees Centigrade (8-12 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, if we don’t drastically cut GHG emissions now.

Global Centigrade temperature rise since 1880

Global Centigrade Temperature rise, 1880-2020; credit NASA

Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is emitted during coal, oil, natural gas & other deep mining, when not burned completely and when natural gas refineries vent & flare. Methane gas has a shorter atmospheric lifetime than Carbon Dioxide, 12 years compared with centuries. But while it exists, Methane is 20 times more powerful than Carbon Dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Fortunately, its cost-effective and technologically feasible to cut 75% of Methane emissions from oil & natural gas operations, but stronger federal regulations are needed. That may be easier for the nations to do, where national policy is stronger in the matters. In contrast, the U.S. has natural gas permitting and venting restrictions at state level. Without federal restrictions, a state like Texas can emit far more Methane per capita than California.

Nitrous oxide is another prominent emission from burning coal and jet fuel. Nitrous oxide is 310 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat because jets emit it high in the atmosphere. The EPA says that globally, about 40% of nitrous oxide emissions come from flying and the other large chunk comes from coal burning.

To prevent widespread calamity by 2050 and 2060, 99% of climatologists say we must dramatically cut GHG emissions by 2030 and 2040. Its good that America’s Coal consumption is rapidly declining, but we must set stronger global examples for Carbon Dioxide, Methane and Nitrous Oxide reductions in our Transportation and Energy sectors.

Does America have viable Transportation alternatives to reduce GHG, Smog and traffic congestion? Will Americans adopt them? See Part 4 for insights.

Part 4: Interstate High Speed Alternatives Inadequate

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