Interstate High Speed Rail Funding
Productivity gains by having the world’s best transportation infrastructure from 1945-1980 helped America become the world’s only superpower. Since 1981 however, America has underinvested in high-speed, high-capacity transportation infrastructure to manage our population, urbanization & economic growth, while reducing air pollutants. We have the economic might to do it. The challenge is marshaling political courage and votes to defy opposition from powerful industries. — Thomas Dorsey, Soul Of America
Can we afford big investment in modern Transportation and Electric infrastructure?
Politifact says that America spent over $6 trillion on two Middle East wars from 2001-21. If America can spend $6 Trillion on wars now ended, our $19 Trillion Per Year economy can afford to invest $1.4 Trillion over 25 years in electric Transportation infrastructure.
I’m not going to sugar-coat infrastructure construction costs. From examining many HSR, Regional Rail and Rapid Transit project costs in America, I estimate that we’re going to need $700 billion/25 years in public and private funding to build a transformational HSR-Regional Rail network. We’re going to need roughly $700 billion in public funding for Rapid Transit.
To power the levels of High Speed Rail, Regional Rail and Rapid Transit that I and others advocate, our Electric Energy infrastructure must be upgraded to the task. It must be more reliable, resilient, higher-capacity and versatile accepting different energy sources. Its going to require more Renewable Energy generation, a wider variety of electric storage and a Smart Electric Grid that does a better job serving Transportation, Industrial, Agricultural, Commercial and Residential sectors.
I’m not well versed in nextgen Electric Energy infrastructure cost, but reports I’ve seen suggest that American government needs to invest over $1 trillion along with about $2 Trillion in private funding by 2050.
We’ve identified the need to build this infrastructure decades ago. Yet, our leaders have underfunded Rapid Transit infrastructure since 1981, when roadway congestion made it obvious that our Top 20 Metro Areas needed it. Our leaders have underfunded HSR-Regional Rail infrastructure since 1993, when HSR-Regional Rail was a proven alternative to Highway and Aviation congestion for regional travel. Our leaders have underfunded Smart Electric Grid infrastructure since 2009, when population growth began straining the current Electric Grid serving our Transportation, Industrial, Commercial and Residential sectors.
If our leaders acted with courage and vision since 1981, America’s HSR-Regional Rail, Rapid Transit and Electric infrastructure could have cost $600-$700 billion less by locking in price controls on lengthy construction contracts. Much today’s high costs are due to Infrastructure inflation rising faster than the Consumer Price Index inflation, cited by most economists. Our HSR-Regional Rail and Rapid Transit infrastructure would be as good as Europe and Japan today. Our Electric infrastructure could have been modernized by 2035.
I’m mad about leadership causing that extra cost and delay. Every taxpayer should be mad too. When will our Congress, President, State Legislatures and Governors authorize enough funding to build HSR-Regional Rail, Rapid Transit and Electric infrastructure to avoid more inflation? Why don’t they prioritize electric-powered Transportation and a Smart Electric Grid?
Fossil Fuel Industry, The Root of America’s Transportation Stagnation
Since 1970, Federal Aviation funding has been separated from U.S. Surface Transportation funding, which has prioritized Federal Highways. One happy byproduct is that Aviation infrastructure remained non-partisan because every state, region and major city benefits from it. Hence, Republicans and Democrats continued funding Aviation infrastructure at levels appropriate for our population and travel growth.
In contrast, U.S. Surface Transportation funding is contentious and partisan because the benefits of Rapid Transit and HSR-Regional Rail do not translate well to rural voters. Equally important, Coal, Oil & Natural Gas industries perceive HSR-Regional Rail, Rapid Transit, Electric Vehicles, Renewable Energies and a Smart Electric Grid as existential threats to their business models. Those industries have influenced rural voters and politicians to resist every step of electric Transportation and Electric Energy infrastructure progress.
Fossil Fuel industry political investment has always dwarfed investment by Environmental interests. Since 1995, coal, oil and natural gas industries have channeled colossal campaign funding to back politicians who would NOT:
• vote to increase the Federal Gasoline Tax
• vote for more HSR-Regional Rail or Rapid Transit funding
• vote for Wind, Solar, Geothermal & Electric infrastructure funding
• acknowledge the contributions of oil-powered transportation emissions to Global Warming
• acknowledge the contributions of oil-powered transportation emissions on Lung Diseases
By 2003, oil, natural gas & coal-friendly policy cemented in Republican Party DNA. They backed an “Oil Man” for President, George W. Bush. To be fair, a number of courageous Congressional Republicans resisted their party’s addiction to oil, natural gas & coal campaign funding. But they faced opponents in Republican Primary elections who benefited from that campaign funding. Congressional Republicans who resisted that addiction were vanquished.
President Bush and a Congressional Republican Majority increased funding for Highway expansion. Without an increase to the Federal Gasoline Tax however, Highway bridge maintenance declined. Excluding 2009-10, Republicans controlled at least one branch of the federal government (House of Representatives, Senate, Presidency) from 1995-2020. Those powers enabled them to block or minimize any federal funding of electric-powered HSR-Regional Rail, Rapid Transit, Renewable Energy and a Smart Electric Grid. Before and after President Obama, they minimized environmental safeguards placed on oil, natural gas & coal industries.
Absent good Rapid Transit options outside New York City and HSR-Regional Rail outside the Northeast Corridor, Americans bought more cars per household and highways remain congested. Excessive highway use coupled with inadequate maintenance has yielded 56,000 highway bridges classified as “Structurally Deficient” by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
In contrast, the Democratic Party listened to public health officials, climate scientists, urban planners and mayors. Excluding one Senator from a coal state, they wanted a fast transition from coal and oil consumption to wind, solar and biofuel energies. They wanted a Smart Electric Grid to support more electric-powered Transportation.
When Democrats gained 2-year control of the House of Representatives, Senate and Presidency over 2009-10, they invested a healthy sum in HSR-Regional Rail, Rapid Transit and Highway repair projects. Tesla introduced popular Electric Vehicles (EV), so Democrats funded tax credits to encourage more EV purchases. Electric power plants accelerated conversions from coal fuel to natural gas, wind & solar fuel. The Obama Administration made a kickstart investment towards a Smart Electric Grid. Other infrastructure-related progress flew under the radar.
After President Obama saved America’s automotive industry, their public opposition to electric transportation halted. Airlines began the gradual transition from short flights to more distant flights for higher profits. Having a front row seat to glacier melt with every flight across the northern Atlantic and northern Pacific, Aviation industry was also convinced to reduce their GHG emissions. They’ve embraced aircraft technology, improvements in operations, and sustainable aviation biofuels with goals to dramatically cut GHG emissions. Most of their opposition to HSR projects also halted.
Despite that progress, Transportation infrastructure politics got edgier. Coal, oil & natural gas industries found mutual interests with Wall Street tycoons to convince a Republican President, Republican Senate Majority & Republican House Majority to pass the 2017 Tax Reform Bill sending 83% of tax breaks to big corporations and the rich. Now, some studies indicate that unless the 2017 Tax Reformed Bill is reformed, it will increase National Debt by as much as $4.1 trillion by 2029.
Today, Congressional Republicans claim that National Debt is too large for them to approve an infrastructure bill at the size we need to recover from 40 years of underinvestment. Since the 2017 Tax Reform Bill favored rich campaign donors, a large percentage of whom represent coal, oil & natural gas industries, Congressional Republicans are steadfast against any increase to Corporate and Top Personal Tax brackets needed to fix America’s infrastructure woes.
Lack of Political Courage Stalls Electric Transportation Infrastructure
Most polls say the vast majority of Americans want to build more HSR-Regional Rail and Rapid Transit which requires a Smart Electric Grid. They want to fix Highway bridges and install more EV charging stations too. A bi-partisan coalition of three former U.S. Secretaries of Transportation agree with them.
The New York Times is one of many sources reporting that the rich and big corporations pay little or no federal taxes. That is why bi-partisan majorities of Americans want the rich and big corporations to fund modern Transportation and Electric infrastructure with higher tax rates.
The $1.2 Trillion Bi-Partisan Senate Infrastructure Proposal was passed by 20 of 22 Moderate Senate Republicans and Moderate Senate Democrats from rural states. Its mostly political theater because it still propose that the lion’s share of Infrastructure funding go to Highways without specifying that it be for bridge repair, rather than expansion. Highway expansion induces more traffic congestion, smog and GHG emissions.
Those senators scored political theater points by approving enough funding to fix more Highway bridges, widen more Highways, purchase diesel-electric trains and reduce Freight Rail bottlenecks. Since they deftly avoided Corporate & Top Personal Tax Bracket increases, funding for HSR-Regional Rail, Rapid Transit, Smart Electric Grid and EV charging stations were, in relative funding terms, afterthoughts. If our 2021 Congress and President only pass the Bi-Partisan Senate Infrastructure Proposal, our Transportation infrastructure will remain a 21st century failure with insufficient mobility options to 80% of the population.
In contrast, Global Economic Competitors are rapidly expanding HSR-Regional and Rapid Transit infrastructure. Even Spain, a nation with 1/15th of America’s GDP and 1/7th of America’s population, has 2100 miles of 155+ mph HSR infrastructure — 35 times more than America in 2022.
New Leadership to Fund HSR-Regional Rail & Rapid Transit Infrastructure
The time for American Infrastructure Failure and political theater has passed. To meet this moment in history, President Biden and a Congressional Democrat Majority must pass a parallel Reconciliation Bill for the scale of modern infrastructure we need. They recently gained another powerful ally for Electric infrastructure. America’s automakers committed to boost EVs to 40-50% of sales by 2030.
We know where to invest. The Federal Railroad Administration has been studying High Speed Ground Transportation routes since 1992. The National Committee for America 2050, composed of civic leaders, business leaders, state planners and urban planners developed a research framework for America’s future growth. On their America 2050 Map, 10 mega-regions (combine Northern & Southern California as one) that need massive Transportation and Electric infrastructure investment.
Nextgen High Speed Train technology is also proven and begins Northeast Corridor operation in 1H 2022. A bounty of architects, construction engineers and consultants know best practices to construct more HSR and Regional Rail infrastructure.
Most HSR advocates agree that House Democrats’ $205 billion/5 years HSR-Regional Rail proposal is the scale of investment we need. Unfortunately, Moderate Senate Democrats won’t go big on HSR-Regional Rail investment.
As a multi-decade Amtrak rider, President Biden knows that the Bi-Partisan Senate Infrastructure Proposal directing $66 billion for HSR-Amtrak-Freight Rail is only large enough to advance Northeast Corridor HSR and further improve Amtrak Long-Distance and Freight Rail routes. All other HSR projects would be severely underfunded or not funded. Few Amtrak Regional routes would upgrade to Regional Rail status that dramatically boosts ridership.
After hard-knuckle negotiation between President Biden and Moderate Senate Democrats, I hope the Reconciliation Proposal settles at $2.5 trillion/6 years. Middle East wars just ended and we can tax big corporations and the rich fairly to pay for it without increasing National Debt. Moderate Senate Democrats can claim they taxed the rich & big corporations, while jointly claiming that they limited the increase by $1 Trillion, yet advancing overdue infrastructure improvements.
A $2.5 trillion Reconciliation Proposal is large enough to allocate $64 billion atop $66 billion in the Bi-Partisan Senate Infrastructure Proposal. That would sum as $130 billion/6 years of federal funds for HSR, Amtrak Regional Rail, Amtrak Long-Distance Rail & Freight Rail infrastructure. It’s also large enough to allocate another $50 billion atop Rapid Transit infrastructure and $50 billion atop Electric Energy infrastructure.
Returning to rail infrastructure, $130 billion federal funding for HSR-Amtrak-Freight Rail is large enough to attract $60 billion/6 years from state, local, freight rail & other private companies to form $190 Billion/6 years total funding. With that funding scale, these transformative HSR projects can accelerate progress in 2022:
$40 Billion Northeast HSR
$40 Billion California HSR
$20 Billion Philadelphia-Harrisburg-Pittsburgh-Cleveland-Toledo-Detroit HSR
$10 Billion Milwaukee-Chicago-Bloomington-Springfield-St Louis HSR
$10 Billion Chicago-Gary-Kalamazoo-Ann Arbor-Detroit HSR
$15 Billion Washington-Richmond-Raleigh-Charlotte-Greenville-Atlanta HSR
The USDOT should also be a guarantor-of-last-resort for the Public Activity Bonds of privately-funded Texas Central HSR, Las Vegas HSR and other privately funded 160+ mph HSR projects. Guarantor status of these high profile projects will invite more private investment to help develop a world-class Interstate HSR System.
Regional Rail & Scenic Rail Funding
Many states have shared Amtrak-Freight Rail routes that have long stretches limited to 30-70 mph and only 3 daily trains. With no expectation of significant federal funding, they drafted Preliminary Plans to enhance longer stretches for 80-90 mph and 6 daily Amtrak trains. Preliminary Plans for those Amtrak-Freight Rail projects can be quickly upgraded to 110 mph Regional Rail projects because they do not require large property acquisition, long tunnels, long viaducts, nor massive earthmoving, like HSR projects. They will however, need 2nd & 3rd track added, small property acquisition for some over/underpasses, upgrade signaling, electric infrastructure, electric trains and modest station upgrades.
In America, Regional Rail upgrades average around $40 million per mile. A subset of 100-150-mile Amtrak Regional-Freight routes can be selected for Regional Rail upgrades. A qualifying criteria should be to finish environmental review by 1H 2023 or sooner, followed by engineering design and construction start in 2023-24. I estimate that $40 billion from the $55 billion funding remainder should be sufficient for 8 or 9 Regional Rail upgrade projects.
For more voter and political support by November 2024, HSR and Regional Rail routes can be operating or under construction in 35 states and Washington, DC.
Amtrak Long-Distance trains and freight trains share several thousand miles of track. Much of that track will be upgraded to HSR or Regional Rail status. Amtrak Long-Distance Rail or “Amtrak Scenic Rail” as I prefer to call it, would still suffer schedule delays caused by too many places with only 1-track that has freight train priority. They also have a lot of old train equipment that’s expensive to maintain.
Aware of those shortcomings, Amtrak is already replacing diesel locomotives with new low-emission locomotives and refreshing old cabins in its fleet. So the remaining $15 billion of new federal, state, local & freight rail funding is needed to install more 2nd & 3rd track to reduce schedule delays and bottlenecks for Amtrak Scenic Trains and freight trains. Similar to the Interstate Highway System, we need all 48 Lower States benefiting from HSR, Regional Rail or enhanced Scenic Rail by 2035.
Renaissance of American Train Travel
With more Interstate HSR System segments operating by 2028, voters will demand larger investment to speed up construction. They can pressure a future President and Congress to approve $250 billion/8 years of federal funding in Phase 2. That should attract $150 billion/8 years from state, local, freight rail & other private sources. HSR and Regional Rail should be operating or well under construction in all mega-regions by 2035. Phase 3 should begin in 2035 for work that completes in 2045. The USDOT strategic plan, federal and state funding should target Interstate HSR System completion by 2045, though “unknowns”, like another Pandemic, could stretch it to 2050.
A Google search for “U.S. High Speed Rail Maps” produces no shortage of visionary American HSR maps. Some include Regional Rail and Long-Distance Rail routes too. Based on my HSR training at Mineta Transportation Institute and much of what I learned from TheTransportPolitic, PedestrianObservations, and America 2050 Research Framework, the U.S. High Speed Rail Association Map and High Speed Rail Alliance Map have the most credible vision. Most of their route alignments are grounded in sound principles to produce high ridership and operating profit.
I favor the U.S. High Speed Rail Association Map’s bold scale and transformational impact it represents.
The U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSRA) advocates for 220 mph routes. They require the most expensive property acquisition, longest tunnels, longest viaducts and most earthmoving. Having the highest Construction Cost Per Mile, they require high corridor population to cost-justify. Even by 2050, a number of USHSRA’s 220 mph routes will not have enough corridor population density and projected ridership to cost-justify top speeds beyond 160 or 180 or 200 mph.
Consequently, I’d like the USHSRA map changed to reflect 160-180-200-220 mph HSR routes, while continuing inclusion of 110 mph Regional Rail routes. With that modification, I believe USHSRA can form the “Definitive 2050 Interstate High Speed Rail System Map.”
A bonus that should please fiscal conservatives is, when enough of the Interstate HSR System is built, it will invite private HST Operators to compete on the system, like our Federal Aviation Network invites broad airline competition.
By completing America’s Intermodal Transportation Network with that scale of transformational HSR-Regional Rail, expanded Rapid Transit, modernized Highways, long-distance Aviation and bottleneck-free Freight Rail, our mobility options can embrace the 21st century, rather than be punished by it.
USDOT High Speed Rail Program
U.S. High Speed Rail Association
High Speed Rail Alliance
Brookings Institution: Vision for High Speed Rail in America
California High Speed Rail Authority
Southeast High Speed Rail
Texas High Speed Rail
U.S. Conference of Mayors – High Speed Rail
PedestrianObservations HSR Map