WASHINGTON—A coalition of Congressmembers, labor unions, and rail-related businesses is urging Congress to appropriate $205 billion to develop high-speed rail routes around the country, far more than included in pending infrastructure legislation.
“We have a generational opportunity to invest in our nation’s infrastructure,” a group of 23 Congressmembers, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) said in a June 1 letter to congressional leaders. With transportation accounting for more than one-fourth of the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions over the past 30 years, they said, “a robust network of high-speed rail corridors with high-performance connections is the best option to dramatically reduce carbon emissions while improving intercity travel. It will be decades before aviation is carbon-free, and electric cars — although vital — will not improve highway speeds.”
The American Jobs Plan, the Biden administration’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal, would appropriate $80 billion for rail, but most of that would go for upgrading current routes, says David Cameron, assistant to the director of the Teamsters Union’s Rail Conference and chief strategist for the newly formed high-speed rail coalition. The INVEST Act, a $547 billion surface-transportation bill introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) on June 4, would appropriate $25 billion over the next five years for high-speed rail, which it defines as trains that can travel at 186 miles per hour. Amtrak’s top speed now is 79 mph.
In contrast, a bill introduced by Moulton in May would devote $205 billion, $41 billion a year for the next five years, to high-speed rail.
“For every buck that we’re going to put into a car and a bridge, we want to put a buck into a rail,” Ocasio-Cortez said at a press conference June 1.
Developing a nationwide high-speed rail network, says Cameron, would be a massive infrastructure project comparable to the federal interstate highway system begun in 1956 — but it would be far less environmentally damaging and move people far more efficiently. To succeed, though, it will need “reliable billions over decades.”
Those billions would create “literally millions of jobs,” Cameron says. Construction would bring work for electricians and other building-trades workers, while “Teamsters do the mud.” Once the routes are completed, the Teamsters represent engineers and “maintenance of way” workers. The National Conference of Firemen & Oilers, an SEIU affiliate, is also part of the coalition.
The Texas Central railroad, a private company planning to build lines connecting Dallas to Houston and San Antonio — promising a 90-minute ride from Dallas to Houston — projects that those routes will bring 40,000 construction and 1,000 permanent jobs.
Fast trains have other economic benefits, Cameron contends. California’s planned high-speed route from Los Angeles to San Francisco, originally scheduled to be completed last year, has been delayed until 2029, but the $4 billion spent on construction in the Central Valley, the state’s poorest region, has so far generated $12 million in economic activity, he says.
When completed, he continues, it will “connect workers to affordable housing and high-paying jobs.” Housing prices in the Bay Area are now so high that many people commute from more than two hours away, but the largely agricultural Central Valley has been “locked out of the economic engines” of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Supporters of high-speed rail also contend that reducing short-haul flights would benefit airlines, because it would cut congestion at airports, and longer flights burn fuel at a lower rate.
Where would routes go?
High-speed rail is well established around the world. Japan opened its first Shinkansen “bullet train” route, from Tokyo to Osaka, in 1964. France’s TGV (“train à grande vitesse”), from Paris to Lyon, began running in 1984, and its network now includes a train under the English Channel to London. China has built 23,000 miles of high-speed rail since 2008, at a cost of $300 billion. Morocco opened a line from Tangiers to Casablanca in 2018.
The U.S. routes currently envisioned would largely cover trips of 250 to 1,000 miles, too long to drive easily, and where trains might be faster than flying if time spent getting to and from the airport and going through security is factored in. There are 11 federally designated possibilities, but Cameron says the ones most likely to happen first are upgrading Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor to high speed; the privately built Brightline West line, from Las Vegas to Rancho Cucamonga in Los Angeles’s far-eastern suburbs; the Texas Central; and completing California’s route from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
More distant possibilities include a Cascades route from Eugene, Oregon to Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, and a “Chicago Hub” connecting Chicago with Detroit, Minneapolis, and St. Louis. Longer routes envisioned include New York-Chicago and Chicago-Atlanta.
One major obstacle, however, is acquiring the right of way to build new tracks. Outside the Boston-Washington corridor, Amtrak passenger trains usually run on tracks owned by freight lines, and are thus often delayed to let freight trains pass. The Brightline West line will be able to use the median on Interstate 15, but acquiring land has been a problem for the California and Texas Central routes.
Converting intercity transportation to trains from cars and planes would require a significant change from the car-dominated culture of the past century. “You’re going to be taking millions of cars off the road,” says Cameron. And with high-speed rail, “you go city center to city center,” so that would generate denser “transit-oriented development.”
That change would be welcome, Rep. Moulton’s office argued in a report released in May 2020. High-speed rail, it said, “best supports 21st-century development in bustling urban centers, walkable downtowns even in much smaller cities and towns, and the agglomeration economies of cities and megaregions that are driving the vast majority of current economic growth. Highways and airports support the sprawly suburban office parks of the 1970s that are increasingly out of favor as an unsustainable development model, inefficient for business and land use, and undesirable for a new generation of Americans.”
Walkable downtowns, it added, “stand in sharp contrast to the acres of parking lots required for the superhighway-based development models of the past century.”
California’s unfinished high-speed route, which is projected to cost $80 billion, is arguably the largest single infrastructure project in American history, Cameron says. But adding an equivalent amount of road and air capacity, he notes, would likely cost twice as much, he notes — and “it’s not going to solve the problem of congestion.”