Current transportation statistics indicate slowing usage of all modes of transportation due to the economic downturn; however, capacity constraints remain a serious limitation to future economic growth. According to the Bureau of Transportation statistics, six of the top 25 cargo ports are on the West Coast. Los Angeles is the number one cargo destination in the United States. Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Denver are among the largest air transit hubs in the United States each having more than .05 percent of all enplanements nationwide.
Intercity passenger rail (ICPR) ridership reached its highest levels in decades in 2008. While the Northeast corridor has seen small ridership increases in the past few years, there have been significant increases in state-supported rail ridership on shorter routes, with most of these routes in the west. A number of factors have contributed to this trend: increased fuel prices, airport security line hassles, highway congestion and on-time performance issues of alternative modes. As the nation continues to deal with congested highways, increased costs to complete highway projects, high fuel prices and poor air quality, transit and HSR provides an ideal solution that benefits all Americans.
For nearly a half century, long-distance passenger rail has suffered from a lack of financial support and poor operations, (the U.S. has one of the lowest levels of public support for rail in the world). What little investment has occurred has been in Amtrak’s northeast corridor, while routes and service between the major population centers in the rest of the country have been in steady decline. HSR in the western U.S. is limited to Amtrak’s Cascade line, but does not connect the region’s major cities like Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
While many critics of passenger rail focus on the poor performing long-distance routes, they ignore the true success stories that have emerged in recent years. In 2008 nearly 11 million passengers used services such as the Pacific Surfliner and the San Joaquins with an average trip of 111 miles. State or locally supported passenger rail now exists in 25 states and has grown 36 percent over the last five years. Considering the lower speeds of these systems, it seems clear that high-speed service will attract ridership for much longer distances.
The Federal Rail Administration, at the urging of the Obama Administration, is working with congressional supporters of rail to develop plans for the future of transportation in the United States, relying heavily upon HSR between all major metropolitan centers. Ultimately, this will connect the nation, much like Eisenhower’s Interstate Highways System vision of the 1950s.
HSR is the preferred transportation mode in the Far East, Near East, Europe and now in the Middle East. Qatar and Kuwait are spending $10 billion each ($20 billion total) and the United Arab Emirates is spending twice that on bullet trains, monorails, ICPR and major transit facilities throughout Dubai. China is spending $180 billion over the next two years on HSR. The vision for their system is to connect the Far East to the Near East and ultimately, the Middle East. Further, China believes that an eventual connection to Europe is fundamental to establishing their future economic viability and sustainability. Should this vision become reality, Europe connecting to the Far East will give both regions a competitive economic advantage over the United States. Why should the U.S. be following Europe, China and the Middle East? The U.S. should be leading the way.
Funding of future corridor studies is essential to the development of a robust national HSR network. Future corridors must be studied now in order to lay the groundwork for additional development. After initial feasibility studies are completed, Congress can proceed with the additional authorization and appropriation of funds necessary for the project.