Putting the American Commitment to High-Speed Rail in Context

» Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood talks the right talk. But the American government seems fated to be unable to deliver on his promises.

The pie chart above puts in context the limited degree to which the Obama Administration and the U.S. governing structure in general have committed to advancing alternatives to our nation’s current over-reliance on the automobile. The image comes from France’s national transportation infrastructure plan, which was introduced to public consultation earlier this month. With €170 billion in funds for transport planned to be spent over the next twenty to thirty years, the report articulates a vision in which 95% of public spending goes towards modes other than road and air — with more than fifty percent of funds earmarked for intercity passenger and freight rail projects. Though the program, promoted by a conservative government, has yet to be approved and lacks a funding source, it represents a sea change in what kinds of transport are prioritized in France.

Under the supervision of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the Obama Administration has been making a big deal of its efforts to promote livable communities where people don’t have to drive to get everywhere. At the Netroots Nation conference last week in Las Vegas, Mr. LaHood was especially vocal about his goals. “Americans like their automobiles,” he said. “One of the reasons they like ‘em is because it is in some places in the country the only form of transportation, particularly in rural America.”

He promotes an alternative. Americans would act more like Europeans and Asians when it comes to transportation choice, the Transportation Secretary implied, had President Eisenhower made a commitment to high-speed rail when he advanced his Interstate Highway System in the 1950s. “That’s the kind of vision that President Obama and Vice President Biden [now] have for America,” he said. Mr. LaHood suggested that after 25 years of spending, “80% of America will be connected” to intercity rail.

Yet all evidence suggests that despite Mr. LaHood’s statements — the most honest (and exciting) about the future of American commuting by any U.S. transport secretary ever, as far as I know — there is no way that his goals will be implemented unless there is a massive transformation in the way American politicians think about transportation.

There are two principal explanations for this problem: one, a lack of long-term planning in favor of alternative transportation options; and two, a lack of funding.

From that perspective, the recent announcement of the French long-term transportation plan by Ecology, Energy, Sustainable Development, and Sea Minister Jean-Louis Borloo is particularly striking. Mr. Borloo, a member of President Sarkozy’s conservative administration, has advanced what the plan itself argues is “a drastic change in strategy, a major rupture in resolutely privileging the development of alternatives to road-based transport modes.” The result: Two million tons of carbon dioxide economized each year, part of a nationwide commitment to reducing greenhouse gases by 20% by 2020. In France, transportation consumes 68% of the nation’s gas and produces 28% of all emissions.

The plan, which is worthy of a read for French speakers, has four principal goals: Optimizing the existing transportation system to limit the creation of new infrastructure; improving the performance of the system in serving areas far from major metropolitan areas; improving the energy efficiency of the system; and reducing the environmental impact of the network. These priorities have resulted in what is a clear emphasis on improvements in the country’s already well-developed rail system. Not only will 2,300 kilometers (1,429 miles) of new (true) high-speed rail be under construction or complete by 2020, but two major north-south freight railroad corridors will be developed simultaneously to ramp up the country’s use of trains to transport goods.

In addition, €53 billion will be pointed towards the creation of new works of public transportation operating in fixed guideways, about half of which will go to the massive Grand Paris scheme. The doubling of congested highways such as the Paris-Lille autoroute have been eliminated from consideration, since road infrastructure projects will be kept to the absolute minimum. The program is likely to be approved by the government at the end of this year.

Though the state lacks a long-term funding source for the commitment, the plan suggests that whatever money that is available will go almost entirely to non-automotive modes of transport. Even if the government loses power in 2012, the plan’s goals won’t die off, since the opposition Socialists, in pseudo coalition with the Greens, are just as interested in advancing a similar transportation paradigm.

The U.S. lacks a similar long-term plan to develop transportation alternatives. National transportation efforts are not guided by an effort to respond to any particular problem, like climate change or metropolitan congestion, and, in reverse of France’s new priorities, they currently overwhelmingly favor investment in roads over transit and intercity rail. Even if the U.S. Congress ever gets around to approving a new transportation bill — a piece of legislation meant to pinpoint six years of federal funding — it will still spend up to three times on highways that it does on other modes. There is no national plan to articulate why it is important to spend more on rail than on the roads, and the Obama Administration does not seem particularly interested in developing one that has the strong backing of the powers that be.

Moreover, the momentum that seemed to be coming last year for a huge down payment for high-speed rail (on the order of $50 billion or more) has disappeared: A few weeks ago, the U.S. House indicated that it would be supporting a transportation allocation this year with only $1 billion for intercity rail (less than the $2.5 billion from the year before), and more spending on highways than ever.

Mr. LaHood is fond of comparing his administration’s support for high-speed rail to the Eisenhower Interstate project, but he always neglects to mention that that program came with a dedicated revenue base to sponsor it — the fuel tax. There is no similar proposal to reliably fund intercity rail or increase spending on public transportation.

The U.S. Senate’s structural bias towards suburban and rural populations is a constant source of problems for altering investment schemes. The decision by the Republican Party to make transportation investment a partisan issue means that the Obama Administration is faced with mounting opposition to a long-term high-speed rail program. Just as important, the complete unfamiliarity of many Americans towards the importance (or even function) of public transportation or intercity railways makes it difficult to convince their representatives at the local, state, and federal levels that it is worthwhile to stop spending so much on roads. The same is not true of the French population, which is used to using transit.

I don’t want to be the eternal pessimist here — proponents of alternative transportation must remain optimistic about the prospects for future change no matter the obstacles in the way — so I’ll conclude positively. Before becoming the Secretary of Transportation, Mr. LaHood was a Republican with little transportation background. Yet no matter the intransigence of Congress, as a member of the administration he has been steadfast in his advocacy for a transportation system that prioritizes getting around by means other than the car. Perhaps we can content ourselves for now by hoping that he’ll be the example to follow in the future.

Image above: Distribution of French spending priorities in transportation infrastructure long-term plan, from French government

30 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • You’ve summed it up perfectly Yonah. While it is exciting to be reading about a lot of cities trying to plan or impliment new light rail or streetcar systems, the reality is that while the desire is there, all the money is in other interest’s coffers (roads). It would be nice to see a shift in our lifetime… funny to talk on that scale but change takes that long it seems. Keep up the good work though. There are plenty of American’s being converted all the time

  • Nemesis

    No need succumb to cynicism at all; look what’s happened in US transportation in only 18 months. It’s a volcano of change compared to the iceberg we’re used to seeing. It starts with injecting these ideas into the national conversation, and Sec. LaHood has been a true champion in that regard. Livability, intermodal transit facilities, complete streets, and–yes–high-speed rail. And the new agility of TIGER grants. Those small changes (HSR excluded) are a huge difference, certainly more practical and real to how we live our lives than the landmark legislation stuff. Patience, grasshopper, patience.

  • Patrick M

    Yonah, Nemesis is correct. LaHood and the Obama Administration have taken the ship that is USDOT and instead of pointing the rudder at highway heaven, have made a hard turn. But the ship is massive and while we are turning away slowly, we will still see a vision of highways before us for some time.

    At the same time, the increased coordination between HUD, DOT, and EPA will begin to transform federal spending through grants like the TIGER program and the regional planning grants that are now open, which are trying to seed “Envision Utah” style processes for most major metropolitan areas.

    If Obama is re-elected and LaHood stays on, there’s no telling what the second term could like, especially if the re-authorization bill is informed by what is going on right now through the grants process.

  • The Interstate Highway Act isn’t the best analogy for what Obama, Biden, and LaHood are doing. LaHood talks in terms of the Interstates because that’s what’s familiar to his audience, but the policy is much more like the federal-aid highways of the 1910s and 20s. At the time, roads were a new form of transportation, one that got a lot of attention from the government and from urban reformers as it was the alternative to the existing corruption-ridden, pollution-ridden steam railroads.

    Interstate Highway-style spending is the pinnacle of government support for a mode of transportation, but it requires decades of smaller starts.

  • Ocean Railroader

    Think of what could have happened if many of the great streetcar systems in the main cities hadn’t of died out but managed to live up though now. Most of them would have been far larger then what we have today or what we are planning to build today.

  • I do have to say it is amazing how quickly the well dried up. There was so much interest from the states but congress seems to have lost interest already. I mean they slashed the high speed rail budget and Amtrak’s budget which already were small and increased roads spending. It’s not as if they were trying to shrink the size of the budget just shift it further down the road it is already on. I have become very pessimistic. The senate is practically useless. The White House also needs to come out with much stronger a message on many issues. I mean if they are afraid to use the words climate change what is really left to say? I guess it is all fairly frustrating because the Democrats have 60 votes in the house but every single one is required to pass anything. Minority interests will always be able to hold any senate hostage with this unnecessary requirement. What happened to a simple majority? I’d like to be optimistic but I don’t want to disillusion myself. I am suppose to believe that a bunch of farm states are going to vote for intercity rail or public transportation? I doubt it. While I agree with the sentiment that change is occurring, I think it needs to happen faster to make a difference. I don’t think climate change is something we can punt twenty years down the road. The tea party is doing a very effective job of getting their message out and I think we need to do the same. Let’s be more loud and less patient.

    • Nathanael

      Honestly, the undemocratic US Senate is the single biggest problem with the country today.

      Majority rule in the Senate would be a major improvement (though the fact that the Senate gives Wyoming as many votes as California makes it still absurdly undemocratic, at least it would be better). The 60 vote garbage MUST STOP.

      And yes, I said this during the Bush administration too.

  • glen

    They seem to have no problem whatsoever giving another 33 BILLION dollars for this MiddleEast action!! passed in the house in the 300-100 range We need this transportaion bill to pass this year as we cannot build HSR on hopes.

  • Ocean Railroader

    That I really hate is how they can pull 30 or a easy 100 billon dollars out of a magic hat of funding for these giant dead end wars. But Congress is going to bicker every pennie when it comes to rail and roads when our way of life is falling apart in bent rails and pot holes.

  • Mason Hicks

    Yonah’s pessimism is definately understandable. Trying to do anything, while local school systems are laying off teachers is obviously trying to blow against the political winds. Its easy for the pundits of negativity to sell the public on tea-bagging principles under these conditions. However, the economy will improve and the downward pressure on our on the federal budget deficit will ease as our nation’s tax revenue once again begins to build. All-the-while, as “Patrick M” noted, public attitudes in favor of continues to grow. Another item which I believe lends an opportunity is that last year we crossed a threshold for the first time in that over half the population of the United States, is now urbanized. The key to capitalizing on that fact is the expansion of commuter rail options. Commuter rail expansion into our cities suburbs makes stake-holders out of populations which previously had no valid reason to believe that there was anything in this argument for them. I really like “Nemesis’” ship analogy. The important thing for us to do as advocates is whatever we can to keep the rudder from drifting “back to amidships”. (Please forgive me, I spent time in the Navy). But, to continue the analogy; once the ship has settled onto its new course, it is much easier to hold it there; and much then is possible.

  • Spokker

    I don’t see the big controversy about high speed rail. It’s not going to cure cancer but it’s a viable transportation option for medium distances corridors and probably stimulates commerce through improved transport links just like any other mode of transportation.

    The way I see it, cars are great for short distances, rail for medium distances and planes for long distances.

    • Adirondacker12800

      ..or cars are great for going to places few people want to go to when nobody else wants to go there… I forget who I’m quoting or if the quote is correct.

      • Nathanael

        That’s about right. Cars are great for going places where nobody else wants to go, when nobody else wants to go, when it’s too far to walk.

        Rail is great for going places where lots of other people want to, when they want to.

        Air is great if you need to go a long distance, probably over an ocean, fast.

  • Spokker

    Cars are definitely required if you want to be a good person. I remember there was a radio personality in Los Angeles that said that a parent without a car is putting their child in danger, and their child should be taken away.

    He was basically saying that if your child needed to go to the hospital at 2AM, you couldn’t save them. If your child needed some medicine from the pharmacy at odd hours, you couldn’t get them. He also said that children shouldn’t see how depressing it is on the bus, that it must warp a kid’s mind.

    • Sounds to me like a variant of the classic “poor people shouldn’t breed” theme. (Which is often a sanitized version of a more racist sentiment…)

    • Andy K

      That is such a bunch of crap. My parents could not drive – legally blind – and somehow managed to raise 4 kids. Many trips to the hospital were somehow worked out – I was fairly accident prone.

      Yeah, even w/o a car, my parents are fairly good people.

    • John W

      Had the radio host never heard of a little ol’ thing called an ambulance? Oh no – only bad parents would do that. But good parents would, in a frantic state, still groggy from sleep, jump into the car and race through town to the hospital, heedless of the danger they posed to anyone else on the streets. Give me a break.

  • cph

    What radio personality said all that? Sounds like someone just trying to stir the pot….

    • Spokker

      Tim Conway Jr.

      He used to do a comedy show on KLSX 97.1. While he was big on personal freedoms, didn’t really care if people smoked a little weed here and there, he was very much a low-taxes/huge freeways kind of guy. Lived in the Valley, I think. Very much hated transit and said that he would look at the people on the bus going into work and said it was the most depressing sight in Los Angeles. He said that once you’re on the bus, that’s it, it’s over. Might as well hang it up.

      It was all said in a very comedic way. Funny stuff.

      • Spokker

        Now that you’ve got me remembering the show, his other half, co-host Doug Steckler, was much more of a sensitive soul. When he went off he really railed against injustices in society, especially against children. His other tirades targeted obviously dumb things that people do.

        Other times he would often counter Conway’s abrasive, callous tone. I guess that was part of their shtick.

        Talk radio tends to be designed for the masses, so it’s definitely going to be anti-transit, anti-bike and pro-car in most cases.

        • Dan

          Interesting thing about America. In most of the world, “for the masses” would be pro-transit, pro-bike and anti-car.

          • Gordy

            No, in most of the world, “the masses” aren’t anti-car. They are very much pro-car. They would love to have a car. They just can’t afford one. So they have to make do with bikes and transit.

          • Nathanael

            No. In most of the world the masses don’t particularly want a car. They just want to be able to get where they’re going quickly and effectively.

            In places where the roads are good and public transit isn’t, that means a car.

            Where the roads are garbage and the rails are good (few places nowadays) that means a train.

      • Spokker, is this the radio guy who plays absurdly offensive characters and gets calls from listeners who aren’t in on the joke? Or is this guy actually serious?

        • Spokker

          Nah, it wasn’t Phil Hendrie.

          This host is obviously playing it up for the air but he is a conservative guy and thinks LA traffic could be fixed by widening the freeways and getting the slow buses off the roads. He’s on KFI 640 AM now and has become even more conservative for them.

  • Dan

    Gordy, I’ve traveled to 14 different countries outside North America and have found that this isn’t the case at all. Many people who could afford a car don’t want one, because they have adequate public transit and walkable communities. A car is just a added burden.

  • Gordy

    I’m sure there are *some* people who don’t want cars, but “the masses” certainly seem to want them. Look at the skyrocketing growth of car sales in newly-industrializing countries like China and India. Even in Europe, the number of cars per capita keeps growing. It’s hard to see how this is “anti-car.”

    • Nathanael

      You forget the vast number of areas in China which have poor rail service. And in India, it’s even worse; the rail lines are in terrible shape, while the roads are actually not that bad.

      As for Europe, again, there are still vast numbers of places with dreadful rail service.

      And frankly, if people in rural areas get and use cars routinely, this is not a problem; it’s more sensible for them to use cars than to extend train service. Those cars *must* be electric, of course, thanks to global warming, but companies are working on that.

      But in congested, busy areas, cars are stupid. The only reason they remain popular in places like Delhi is that the alternatives — including public transit — are even worse.

      • allen

        @Nathanael, the only reason they remain popular is that the alternatives are even worst?

        Geez, that sounds a bit like “he’s an anti abortionist” or any the twisted rhetorical ways the PR folks use to try to spin something their way.

        So what you’re saying is that they only reason they use cars is that they’re the best choice that’s available? Or is that not allowed?

  • nate

    good story…but what did the american public really realistically think would happen after the federal government bailed out the auto giants…of course the government is going to buy into road work after they are the controlling owner/majority shareholder of GM…yeah we all see the positives of mass transit and want it…but be realistic…politics and beaurocrats are just hidding behind the newest pop words “Green” “sustainability”…Even if HSR and mass transit ever got off the ground and got started outside of major metropolitan centers of our country it would be decades before we see the positive effects of the spending…Who knows what opportunities for corruption would present themselves through all the spending! Sorry I’m not as optimistic as others…I wish I could be but it seems more prudent lately to be a realist rather a optimist!

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