Is a Modern National Rail Service in the U.S. Feasible?

From Thinking Outside the Boxe’s London Correspondent: The U.S. transport system has not been updated since the 1950s, when President Eisenhower created the federal highway system. Many things have changed in the 60 years since these renovations were made: the population of the U.S. has almost doubled, making gridlock a daily reality for millions of commuting Americans, and as this population ages, many individuals who are unable or unwilling to drive are becoming trapped in areas with little or no public transportation. Decreasing oil resources and growing concerns about global warming mean that a transport system that relies on personal, gas-powered cars is unsustainable, and with many other nations, include China and members of the EU, focusing on connecting their cities with high-speed rail systems, the U.S. must follow suit or risk being left behind its competitors in terms of both economics and the quality of life of its citizens. It is therefore undeniable that the U.S. needs to invest in updated transportation, including a modern, high-speed rail system. But will Congress take the necessary leap and fund the project? It seems unlikely.

The benefits of a modern national rail system to the U.S. are almost too numerous to list. As the current recession is showing no signs of ending, we need to consider options that will both provide the U.S. with a short-term economic boost and create a stronger infrastructure to secure us against similar financial shocks in the future. According to Cambridge Systematics, every $1 invested in public transportation will generate around $6, as a solid transportation system is vital to the major sectors that make up the U.S. economy. A modern national rail system would provide the service industry with access to larger markets and more skilled workers, while low cost, reliable transportation would help to keep down production costs, increase productivity and allow retailers to make the small, frequent shipments that are required to remain competitive, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The agricultural business, meanwhile, would also benefit from a modern rail system, as high-speed rail will provide an efficient and cheap option for moving commodities around the country and to trade gateways for export to markets around the globe. A modern rail system would also have a more direct impact on those affected by the recession: Sphere Consulting estimates that renovations to the U.S. rail system would reduce current unemployment by 14%, with a particular boost in the construction industry, which has seen a strong decline in recent years.

Despite the current economic difficulties, the time appears perfect for the U.S. government to implement reform in the transportation system. Current concerns over fossil fuel usage, whether for the damage caused to the environment or for spiraling gasoline costs, provide the impetus to discuss cleaner, more affordable alternatives, and the competition from nations like China, which are investing heavily in modern transportation infrastructures, may spur policy makers into reaching a decision. The Obama Administration has declared a focus on improving livability, including through high-speed rail, and in 2010, the Federal Railroad Administration gave more than $1 billion each to California, Florida and Illinois for creating high-speed rail systems, with smaller payouts going to many other states. Even if the U.S. government runs out of money to fund these projects, private investors also seem keen to become involved – over $250 billion of private capital has already been raised to fund a new transportation infrastructure. As much of the main legislature on transportation spending has recently come up for renewal or replacement, the U.S. has the perfect opportunity to implement transportation reform and begin to create a modern national rail system that would boost the economy, decrease unemployment, save everyday commuters time and money, and allow the U.S. to remain competitive on the global stage.

Unfortunately, these changes are unlikely to happen. With a divided House and Senate, a severe budget deficit, and an apparent inability to reach decisions on anything that does not severely threaten the existence of the government itself, the U.S. government hardly seems inclined towards seriously considering major transportation reform at this time. The current administration even appears reluctant to maintain the status quo in transportation funding, as the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act, which was intended to fund some renovation of the transportation system, including the New Start rail transit program, expired on September 30th 2009, and its reauthorization has been delayed ever since. Although Congress is expected to begin work on a replacement bill in 2012, they clearly currently lack motivation to even address funding for transportation, let alone the enthusiasm and commitment required to fund the extensive renovations required to provide the U.S. with a modern national rail system.

Even the current, outdated transportation system suffers from chronic underfunding. According to a study by the Miller Center for Public Affairs, the average annual gap between available funding for transportation and the funding needed to maintain and improve the system will range between $134 and $262 billion for the next 25 years. At a time when the U.S. government is making significant budget cuts, where will it find adequate resources to cover this gap, let alone go beyond these estimates to implement a radical new modern rail system? There is little support in Congress for increasing taxes, and although the Obama Administration has previously suggested that it will invest in transportation, the Republican party remains averse to such changes. Although private funding may provide a feasible alternative, the U.S. government still needs to address the issue and drive reform.

Although the introduction of a modern national rail system to the U.S. would help to address many of the problems that the country currently faces, the current administration appears unable to look beyond our pressing economic situation to see the long-term benefits of investment in this system. Although it would be the overstating the problem to say that the U.S. is doomed to an inadequate passenger rail system, drastic improvements are unlikely to be seriously considered in the near future.

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