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
Modern Transportation and Electric Infrastructure construction are very expensive. The good news is, we can afford it over the next 25 years. Politifact says that America spent over $6 trillion on two Middle East wars from 2001-21. If America can spend $6 trillion on Middle East Wars now ended, our $19 trillion per year GDP can afford $3 trillion over 25 years to modernize Transportation and Electric infrastructure that, in a virtuous circle, enlarges our economy.
2021 is a milestone year for Electric Transportation. Tesla’s stock value surpassed ExxonMobil. Hertz ordered 100,000 Teslas. Amazon committed to an all-electric fleet by 2030. America’s automakers committed to boost Electric Vehicles (EV) to 40-50% of sales by 2030.
Yet America is falling further behind Global Economic Competitors. China continues investing 5.6% of GDP on infrastructure. Even Japan and most European nations invest between 0.7% to 1.0% of GDP on infrastructure. In contrast, America continued investing only 0.5% of GDP on infrastructure. Though America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, the World Bank ranks America’s Infrastructure 13th.
Our railway for the movement of freight could be improved but is still best in the world. Our Passenger rail sucks. On the chart below, Yonah Freemark of the Urban Institute illustrates the disturbing trend line of Federal Railroad investment since 1977.
If Yonah Freemark’s chart went back to 1965 it would illustrate that, excluding 1980-81 and 2009-10, America has underinvested in HSR-Regional Rail and Rapid Transit. Even if we give our leaders a pass for underinvestment during the Vietnam War (1964-74), the 1973 Oil Embargo should have motivated them to ramp up investment in HSR-Regional Rail and Rapid Transit in 1974. Excluding Canada and Australia, other advanced nations did.
Once the Vietnam War ended in 1974, our leaders should have invested 1.0 to 1.2% of GDP in infrastructure. From that pool of funds, $10 billion/year should have been channeled to HSR-Regional Rail and $12 billion/year to Rapid Transit and adjust for inflation at each budget renewal. We would have a great Interstate HSR System with ample Regional Rail extensions. Our Top 40 Metro Areas would have robust Rapid Transit systems anchored at train stations.
Political Courage Reignites Transportation Infrastructure
In 2021, polls still say most Americans want more HSR-Regional Rail and Rapid Transit which requires a Smarter Electric Grid. They also want to fix Highway bridges. A bi-partisan coalition of three former U.S. Secretaries of Transportation agree with them.
Those and other factors led to the $1.2 Trillion Infrastructure Bill authored by 20 of 22 Democrat and Republican Senators from rural-dominant states. As usual, Highways get the lion’s share of infrastructure funding — $110 billion. The bill only sends $66 billion to HSR-Regional Rail-Freight Rail projects and a paltry $39 billion to Transit. The Infrastructure Bill also allocated $73 billion to Electric Energy projects.
From a rural perspective, the Infrastructure Bill is large enough to address their transportation needs, which are predominantly Highways and roadway bridges. For urban America, the bill fails to make up for HSR-Regional Rail and Rapid Transit underinvestment since 1965.
In the last 50 years, we’ve lost too much productivity from traffic congestion and we emit far too much Smog and GHG. That is why HSR-Regional Rail and Rapid Transit projects need funds from Clean Energy & Climate Investments proposed in President Biden’s Build Back Better Bill. We know where to direct additional funds. The National Committee for America 2050 composed of civic leaders, business leaders, state planners, and urban planners developed a framework for America’s future growth. Since 1992, the Federal Railroad Administration has identified many other HSR corridors within those mega-regions. For purposes of HSR investment, consider Northern & Southern California as one mega-region on their America 2050 Map.
The Infrastructure Bill sends $30 billion to Northeast Corridor HSR to couple with $16 billion of state, local, and private matching funds in its Phase 1 upgrade. That’s great, but other high population density corridors in the 10 mega-regions also need HSR infrastructure.
If the majority of Congress wanted to address more high population density corridors and metro areas, a scaled-down version of the Build Back Better Bill should invest $130 billion in HSR-Regional Rail-Freight Rail and $120 billion in Rapid Transit. Fortunately for taxpayers, private investors have cherry-picked Houston-Dallas, Las Vegas-Southern California, and Tampa-Orlando-Fort Lauderdale-Miami corridors for HSR-Regional Rail investment.
The current Congress, however, is unlikely to allocate $64 billion of HSR-Regional Rail investment atop $66 billion allocated in the Infrastructure Bill. Nor is Rapid Transit likely to receive the $81 billion investment atop $39 billion from the Infrastructure Bill.
If some version of the Build Back Better Bill passes, I hope it allocates $44 billion of HSR funding atop $66 billion for HSR-Regional Rail-Freight Rail for a total of $110 billion/8 years to HSR-Regional Rail-Freight Rail. That’s large enough to attract $50 billion/8 years from state, local, freight rail & other private companies for $160 billion/8 years total funding.
The $50 billion matching contribution is realistic because a handful of states, counties, cities, freight rail, and Transportation-Oriented Development (TOD) companies are committing $16 billion to Northeast Corridor HSR. The state of California is committing $20-23 billion to the California HSR project. If some version of the Build Back Better Bill passes, it will attract larger contributions from states, counties, cities, freight rail, and TOD companies to build projects at the right scale
In 2019, people took 32.5 million trips by Amtrak — that’s lousy ridership by International standards. If a version of the Build Back Better Bill does not pass, 30-40 states will fight to spilt the remaining $36 billion Amtrak-HSR funds from the Infrastructure Bill. That “crabs in a barrel” approach will only produce more 80-90 mph Amtrak lines running 3-5 times daily. Such low train speeds and train frequencies will not quintuple Amtrak-HSR ridership to have a transformational impact across America.
Aside from Northeast Corridor HSR and California HSR, Interstate HSR Phase 1 funding should target existing Amtrak Regional routes designated for HSR upgrades since 1992. Having engaged the public for years about those upgrades, Amtrak and State DOTs know where the “landmines are buried.” That will minimize lawsuit and property acquisition delays.
Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia already support Amtrak Regional upgrades. If $26 billion in Federal HSR funding heads their way, the latter seven states will find $14 billion in matching funds for Amtrak-HSR upgrades.
Though $160 billion total investment would be difference-making, it is not large enough to fund mid-priority HSR projects listed on Part 6 of this series. Nor should Biden’s USDOT let a hundred small projects consume funding needed for 6 difference-making HSR projects and the difference-making Amtrak Regional Rail upgrades listed in another section below. We need to accelerate these high-priority HSR Phase 1 projects:
$ 45 Billion Northeast Corridor HSR
$ 43 Billion California HSR
$ 15 Billion Washington-Richmond-Raleigh-Charlotte-Atlanta HSR
$ 10 Billion Philadelphia-Harrisburg-Pittsburgh HSR
$ 8 Billion Milwaukee-Chicago-Springfield-St Louis HSR
$ 7 Billion Chicago-Gary-Kalamazoo-Ann Arbor-Detroit HSR
$128 Billion Federal, State, Local & Private Funds
Another $2 billion should be allocated to underwrite Preliminary Plans and Environmental Reviews for Interstate HSR Phase 2 projects to be ready in 2029, when larger federal, state, local, freight rail & TOD funding become available:
• New Haven-Hartford-Springfield-Montpelier
• Chicago-Gary-Fort Wayne-Toledo
• St. Louis-Kansas City-Wichita-Oklahoma City-Dallas
• Cheyenne-Denver-Colorado Springs-Santa Fe-Albuquerque
• Tucson-Phoenix-Las Vegas
• New Orleans-Baton Rouge-Houston
• Chicago-Quad Cities-Des Moines-Omaha
• Seattle-Spokane-Boise-Salt Lake City
• Auburn-Sacramento-Martinez-Oakland-San Jose
Regional Rail & Long-Distance Rail Funding
Freight trains share thousands of their track mileage with Amtrak Regional and Amtrak Long-Distance trains. That leads us to the two biggest causes of Amtrak schedule delay: (1) old train equipment and (2) bottlenecks having only 1 Main track. Since Amtrak is already replacing diesel locomotives with low-emission diesel-electric locomotives and refreshing old cabins, old train equipment will be a non-issue by 2026.
Many states have Preliminary Plans or Environmental Clearance for Amtrak projects to add a 2nd Main track and better-gated railroad crossings. At best, those projects will limit Amtrak Regional trains to 90 mph top speed, 50 mph average speed (with stops), and 8-10 daily roundtrips.
To attract high ridership, Amtrak Regional routes should be upgraded to world-class Regional Rail status where trains run 110 mph top speed, 72 mph average speed and 20-24 daily roundtrips. Unlike High Speed Rail, Regional Rail does not require large property acquisition, long tunnels, long viaducts, or large earthmoving. Regional Rail does, however, require 2 Main Tracks and an intermittent Siding Track for freight trains to pull aside. Regional Rail also requires railroad over/underpasses, urban fencing, and electrification to accelerate & brake faster for higher average speeds.
In 2021, Regional Rail upgrades in America average $3 billion per 100 miles. Fortunately, 11 of 25 Amtrak Regional lines can be subsumed in the HSR projects named above. The remaining $30 billion/8 years should upgrade 14 Amtrak routes to Regional Rail status that simultaneously reduces Amtrak Long-Distance train and freight train bottlenecks. To spread the benefits across more states sooner, Amtrak Regional Rail projects should upgrade in two phases:
Phase 1: Build 2 Main Tracks, add Siding Track, acquire small property & start building over/underpasses
Phase 2: Finish over/underpasses, convert to electric infrastructure & trains, upgrade signaling & fencing
Since I advocate for more public investment in HSR, I am compelled to remind readers that we must hold political leaders accountable. They in turn must hold contractors accountable to guard against excessive cost. I paraphrase these cost-control tips from a highly-regarded Transportation expert, Alon Levy at PedestrianObservations.com:
1. Project budgets should be set at a standard 10% contingency funds or 15%, if long tunnels are required.
2. Advocate for consolidated federal & state Environmental Reviews to save 12-18 months of project time.
3. Follow French and German best practices HSR and Regional Rail design & construction.
4. Design variations should only be accommodated for cost minimization.
5. If NIMBYs try to gold-plate projects, the state should fight back to prevent cost-creep.
Renaissance of American Train Travel
With more Phase 1 Interstate HSR and Regional Rail corridors operating by November 2028, voters will demand that our future Congress and President make a larger investment in Phase 2 projects that passed Environmental Reviews. Under those conditions, $250 billion/8 years in Federal HSR-Regional Rail Phase 2 funding is possible.
Whatever the federal funding amount, 40% more funding should come from the state, local, freight rail, and TOD sources. That will be enough for HSR and Regional Rail to operate or be under construction in all mega-regions by 2035. The USDOT strategic plan should target substantial Interstate HSR System build-out by 2045, though another great recession or natural disaster could stretch it to 2050.
A Google search for “U.S. High Speed Rail Maps” produces no shortage of 2050 Interstate HSR Vision Maps. Some maps 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 for high ridership and operating profit.
I favor the bold scale that so many 220 mph routes on the 2050 U.S. High Speed Rail Association Map represents.
There’s one catch. 220 mph routes need very high corridor population density to justify the most property acquisition, longest tunnels, longest viaducts, and most earthmoving. Even by 2050, a number of USHSRA’s 220 mph routes will not have enough population density” to justify infrastructure costs beyond 160, 180, or 200 mph. Consequently, I’d like the USHSRA map changed to reflect 160-180-200-220 mph HSR routes while continuing the inclusion of 110 mph Regional Rail routes. With that modification, I believe USHSRA can form the “Definitive 2050 Interstate HSR System Map.”
By completing America’s Intermodal Transportation Network with that scale of 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