As highway capacity between major metropolitan centers becomes increasingly overburdened, the corresponding options for expansion are also increasingly limited. Environmental challenges, right-of-way constraints, escalating costs and the limits of highway technology all contribute to the demise of unlimited highway expansion. Connecting the western U.S. would be the first step toward reducing air traffic and highway congestion, while in turn increasing interstate highway capacity and improving air quality by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Connecting Western states via high-speed rail is the future of our nation.
High-speed rail will reduce our dependence on foreign oil, lessen congestion and put the U.S. even with, if not ahead of, the rest of the world in connectivity and global competitiveness. Developing a connection between the cities of Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles, as well as a connection between Denver, Salt Lake City, Reno and San Francisco – which ultimately connects to Portland and Seattle – will create a Western network of high-speed rail that will be unparalleled in the nation and the world.
The National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission (NSTPRC), created by Congress in 2005 within SAFETEA-LU, recommended that the entire country should be connected by high-speed rail by 2050. And further, that the HSR should connect population centers within 500 miles of each other. In November 2006, the federal General Accounting Office (GAO) concluded that: “The existing intercity passenger rail system is in poor financial condition and the current structure does not effectively target federal funds to where they provide the greatest public benefits, such as transportation congestion relief. Routes of 750 miles or more, while providing service for some rural areas and connections between regions, show limited public benefits for dollars expended. These routes account for 15 percent of riders but 80 percent of financial losses. “Corridor” routes (generally less than 500 miles in length) have higher ridership, perform better financially, and appear to offer greater potential for public benefits.”
We are not proposing to continue the current failed system of passenger rail in the West, but rather, as the NSTPRC and GAO have suggested, an entirely new approach focused on service between population centers within 500 miles of one another. The cost of this connectivity must be measured by efficiency on many levels: not just on-time performance, but also the reduction of highway congestion that thereby reduces the need for additional highway capital projects, and lower greenhouse gas emissions that improve air quality regionally.