New Report Maps a High-Speed Rail Link For Every Major U.S. City

hsr_map.jpgImage: U.S. PIRG

Now that the Obama administration has awarded $8 billion in high-speed rail grants to more than two dozen states, with $2.5 billion more coming soon, why not keep thinking big when it comes to bullet-train expansion?

That’s the ethos of a new report released today by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) calling for a New Deal-like public works juggernaut that would eventually connect all major cities located within 100 and 500 miles of each other. For a look at how such a system would remake the American rail map, check out the image above.

"The first step in building the network is to set a national goal
with an ambitious time frame, just like we did for the Interstate
Highway System or getting to the moon," U.S. PIRG senior analyst Phineas Baxandall wrote in a blog post unveiling the report. "We can link all our major cities
by 2050, if we set our minds to it."

Given the political wrangling over the deficit that continues to paralyze Washington, however, it’s worth asking how an ambitious rail program would be funded. The U.S. PIRG answers that question in several ways: First, the group calls for a dedicated revenue stream for inter-city passenger rail in the next long-term transportation bill, with local investments matched by the federal government in the same 80:20 ratio that highway plans receive.

"By financing transportation projects equitably," the report’s authors write, "states will be able to make rational transportation decisions based on the needs of their residents, rather than on the chances of securing a lucrative federal match."

Secondly, the U.S. PIRG aims to put government support for Amtrak — often derided by conservatives for its reliance on federal subsidies that also benefit road projects — in perspective. When evaluated as a share of U.S. GDP, government investment of passenger rail looks stunningly low compared with other industrialized nations. The imbalance is visible in the chart below:

chart_2.png(Chart: U.S. PIRG)

From the U.S. PIRG report:

To begin to dig out of that hole, the federal government should invest steadily increasing levels of funding in passenger rail. We probably cannot hope to match the $300 billion China will be investing in its high-speed rail system between now and 2020, but we should endeavor to match the level of investment provided by other industrialized nations, as a share of GDP, in their rail networks.

The group does not address the lingering debate over whether all planned U.S. inter-city rail projects can truly be called "high-speed" given that many would achieve maximum speeds little better than 110 miles per hour. Still, its vision of finishing the job begun by the White House this year is likely to fire up rail advocates and give helpful new tools to local planners.

  • Is PIRG also calling for nationwide campaigns for connecting transit, or just for the form of rail that’s high on pizzazz?

    Also: connecting Atlanta to Birmingham and Macon but leaving Charlotte for “future HSR” is insane.

  • Mad Park

    1) For 4 decades of obvious reasons, Amtrak should not be involved in any meaningful way in HSR planning.

    2) The US COULD spend US$300B on HSR between now and 2020 IF it’d quit meddling in the business of other nations and peoples.

  • It is definitely something better than nothing. Hopefully, we will seriously start to focus on really improving this country.

  • Mad Park: yes, the US could spend $300 billion. That could create either a good HSR network, or a network with lines to nowhere in Vermont and Georgia as PIRG proposes – take your pick.

    But to put things in perspective for you, if urban rail cost as little in the US as in the rest of the world (a little under $10,000 per weekday boarding, cf. $20,000 for US light rail and $50,000 for subways), and if the US wanted to have the same rail ridership per capita as New York nationwide (about 30 weekday boardings per 100 people), then this program would cost $900 billion. It would not be so glamorous as HSR, but it would help people’s commutes, and somewhat reduce car use and environmental damage. But if this program were to increase rail ridership to higher levels, say that of Hamburg (which has about 45 weekday boardings per 100 people) or Paris (which has nearly 70), or if the costs were proportional to those of existing urban rail projects in the US, its cost would be in the trillions.

  • AlexB

    The lack of connections from Atlanta to Charlotte, Pittsburgh to Cleveland, and Chicago to Cincinnati via Indianapolis seem to be an oversight. Each of these routes would have greater ridership for the cost than the Milwaukee to Minneapolis or St Louis to Kansas City routes shown, for example. Other than that, this seems to be a great and very feasible proposal.

  • J:Lai

    Alon Levy, you are ignoring the probably re-distribution of population in response to investment in rail/transit. Those costs would be to create that amount of rail usage given no change in the distribution of where people live and work.

  • Mad Park

    Alon Levy – I am well aware that the costs of even “adequate” urban and inter-city rail transport will be in excess of a trillion dollars – I’ve posted thus on several blogs. The automobile century (1910-2010)has already cost us trillions; we need now to face up the political, social, and economic reality that cleaning up the toxic mess that was the automobile century will cost us trillions more. Our grand children deserve this from us.

  • Pursuant

    Wonderful to see the investment, but it’s a shame they can’t get the current trains running as fast as they were in the 1920s, ninety years ago.

    Talk about progress.

  • rt66

    i disagree with the post below about st. louis to k.c. if nothing else this route is still the old rt. 66 and that must be honored 🙂

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