Administration convenes state officials to discuss HSR

“This is how the interstate highway system started, folks,” says V.P. Biden.

As I reported earlier today, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood met with state governors and transportation officials this afternoon to discuss high-speed rail policy after Congress earmarked $8 billion for fast trains in the stimulus bill and will likely include $1 billion additional funds in each budget year 2010-’14. The administration wants states to have a better understanding of what the federal government will be looking for when it starts distributing grants by late summer.

The meeting, as to be expected, was full of administration and state enthusiasm about the transformational potential of high-speed rail. Much of what was said was based on a direct comparison between President Obama’s high-speed rail vision and the Interstate Highway System proposed and initiated by President Eisenhower; unfortunately, that comparison doesn’t stand up to close examination.

Both Mr. Biden and Mr. LaHood discussed the potential of rail to reduce congestion, make travel cleaner, and improve convenience. Those goals are laudable and represent clear, indisputable advantages of investing in high-speed rail. Mr. Biden went too far, however, in saying the following:

“This is how the interstate highway system started, folks. It wasn’t like the Lord on the eighth day said — boom! — there’s the interstate highway system.”

Here’s the basic problem with that line of argument: the Lord — President Eisenhower — did, in fact, say “boom!” 1956’s Federal-Aid Highway Act appropriated $25 billion ($200 billion in 2009 dollars) for the construction of 41,000 miles of grade-separated, fast-moving roadways through 1969. Billions more were appropriated over the following thirty years. Meanwhile, the federal government followed a very specific plan: in 1955, it had a map with authorized routes for freeways and a national network towards which to work was evident from the start.

This barely mirrors how this American high-speed rail project has begun. The Obama Administration appropriated a total of $13 billion in funds (6.5% of the equivalent commitment in 1956) for trains this year. The national network plan envisioned by the administration is actually a compilation of congressionally-approved corridors with little basis in line performance and completely unrelated to work actually being done by states today.

I do not point out the obvious limitations of the administration’s high-speed rail policy to make some jab at the Vice President or the Secretary of Transportation. But President Eisenhower’s enormous commitment would have represented 25% of total budget expenditures ($102 billion) if spent in 1956 alone; on the other hand, President Obama’s “huge” outlay for rail represents a tiny 0.04% of the 2010 budget ($3.6 trillion). Is that comparable? How about China’s stimulus plan to invest $190 billion in its railways?

I am enthusiastic about the White House’s clear interest in promoting rail. But we’re fooling ourselves if we think we’re taking some huge step towards improving our infrastructure with this minimal investment. We need to put in a lot more if we want grand results on par with what Eisenhower put into play.

11 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Adam

    Good post Yonah,

    May I suggest you get in touch with someone on the T&I committee staff (Jim Oberstar was actually on the T&I committee as a staffer in the mid 60s, so he I’m sure he’s well versed in this history) and shoot some ideas their way (especially in terms of your national rail network)?

  • Jake

    Couldn’t agree more. You hit the nail on the head with this one. If we want to get serious about HSR, then we need to treat it as equal, if not greater, than the Interstate system is treated and was treated at it’s birth.

  • What do you think of the President’s national HSR network routes? How does it stack up to the city pairs and other analysis you did in your proposal?

  • Someone in the pre-internet era called the Interstate system “the world’s largest exercise in Soviet-style central planning.” Not even the Soviet Union ever attempted to build anything in such a completely uniform way across a vast territory. As we all know, the Federally enforced uniformity of the Interstates had all kinds of negative effects, from needless expenditures in low-traffic rural areas to huge swaths of destruction in big cities.

    The Interstates are an interesting comparison, too, because like HSR they invite dreams of a uniform national network but are used almost entirely by traffic going much shorter distances, trips at the state and local scale.

    So I hope Biden’s boast is over the top. Federal funding is a good thing, but I’m not sure a corresponding Federal dominance of HSR policy would be. I hope what we’ll see is continued leadership from states (or consortia of adjacent states) to plan promote each corridor, triggering vigorous competition for Federal funding but ensuring clear control of the product at the scale where the product will be used. There’s a real risk that an overly prescriptive Federal role would only stifle innovation at a time when that’s what we most need.

    What’s the worst that could happen from an approach that respects and demands state leadership? Europe’s nations are the size of US states, yet Europe is somehow piecing together a world-class network from initiatives that happened entirely at that scale.

    Would a Europe-wide authority have done it better? Isn’t the diversity of European approaches to HSR — diversity that a central funding approach might have suppressed — one of the great things about European rail as a laboratory and proving ground for these technologies?

  • Adirondacker

    in 1955, it had a map with authorized routes for freeways and a national network towards which to work was evident from the start.

    In 1955 they had been studying the system for 30 years, of course they could spit out a map, all they had to do was dig out a copy of the Pershing Map from 1922, fiddle with it a bit and Voila an Defense Highway system.

    They also had the example of the limited access toll roads in the Northeast, Midwest and California to point to.

    …. We’ve been talking about high speed trains since the passage of the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965. They should have been able to spit out a map. Lets hope they do something this go ’round.

  • more if we want grand results on par with what Eisenhower put into play

    The grand results include bridge collapses, excessive overbuilding leading to outrageous maintenance costs, and continued subsidies from urban areas to rural areas.

  • Biden is right. It took the early freeways of the 1930’s and initial leadership by states before we really got anywhere like considering a national system. We’re not at 1956 yet, we’re still in the thirties. Remember it was in the 1890’s when the roads movement really began.

  • Rockfish

    Interestingly, $200B over 11 years is exactly what Spain has committed to completing its network. You know, the one veryone points to as an HSR success story.
    We, have a project 10 times the size of Spain’s and are barely able to come up with 6.5% of the money for ONE year. (Does anyone really think this funding will get re-appropriated every year by Congress?)
    Sure, first steps are good, but lip service is still lip service. This $13B will disappear down a corrupt rathole of favors and political payoffs, and we’ll have nothing to show for it.

  • MadPark

    Rockfish @8. I’d agree, and have written here and elsewhere that this project will require a 30+ year commitment, and a trust fund with monies distributed without fear or favor but rather on the merits of the project.

  • The US has no project ten times the size of Spain’s. The FRA corridor map and Yonah’s fantasy map both have about the same route length as Spain’s project. Remember that Spain’s connecting a lot of tiny cities to the HSR network, whereas the only lines to nowhere on the US maps are Boston-Maine, Dallas-Little Rock, and arguably Portland-Eugene.

  • F.K. Plous

    The Interstate map was based on a simple formula: Connect all U.S. cities of greater than 50,000 population, a politically appealing but logistically dubious method of constructing an efficient land-based transportation system. The map was sold on the basis of fast, comfortable long-distance car travel, but the vast majority of the non-truck VMT on the Interstates is accounted for by local and regional commuting. I would hope the coming U.S. passenger-rail system–which I sincerely welcome–would be thought through more serious.

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