Posted at Americas Quarterly on November 30, 2010
The votes were barely tallied and already the politics of high speed rail had begun. Some Republican gubernatorial candidates, freshly elected, were already asking that high speed rail (HSR) funds be reallocated to other transport priorities.
Democratic Governors-elect like Andrew Cuomo of New York, Pat Quinn of Illinois and Jerry Brown of California were soon requesting that the rejected funds be reallocated to their states. Against this backdrop, the advocacy group U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSR) held a first post-election conference with a who's who of HSR including Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and former Transportation Secretary Norm Minetta, forging more consensus. By mid-November, it was certain the Administration remained solidly behind their HSR vision, but Republicans were sending mixed messages.
Is the Obama-Biden initiative in danger? With Spain and China currently making significant investments in HSR, would America once again stand back while other countries are forging ahead? There are no simple answers to these questions.
The incoming chairman of the House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is John Mica from Florida. Oddly enough, Mica favors HSR for the Northeast but not for his home state, which arguably has the most advanced project for construction. Mica believes that congested airports around New York City and Boston need an alternative option for travel. Mica is not a promoter of Amtrak and prefers an approach involving a private-public partnership. So the jury is still out about whether the GOP will back the HSR initiative. The support for HSR from President Obama has been likened to Eisenhower's Interstate Highway of the 1950s and 1960s, which can explain the emergence of a plethora of advocacy groups.
Interest has transcended U.S. borders. In Canada, Québec Premier Jean Charest has succeeded in obtaining interest and support to explore a trans-border link to Montréal. Governor-elect Cuomo and a number of New England Governors have endorsed the prospect of such an enterprise. Québec's HSR emissary, former Canadian ambassador to the U.S. Raymond Chrétien has already met key officials of the Obama Administration to build support for customs pre-clearance in Canada to encourage the trans-border link.
Despite the ambiguity following the November midterms, the arguments in favor of HSR remain cogent. Building an American version of HSR is a major infrastructure project with manufacturing potential and obvious environmental benefits. Seen as an investment in public goods as opposed to a fiscal budget expense, HSR can provide economic benefits and social advantages for generations to come . The detractors say it is too costly and there may not be a market for it, but the same arguments were once applied to the interstate highway program and the development of aviation. America, the land of the innovative economy, is actually playing catch-up but history shows that the U.S. can readily turn a disadvantage into an asset in relatively record time.
Already America has possibly the best freight rail system in the world. Some tracks can be converted to shared rail passages which could be feeder rail links to higher speed, dedicated passenger rail hubs, thereby creating alternatives to existing passenger transportation. To those who doubt there is a market, look at the Acela Express in the Northeast. In fact, the market argument was used with early cell phone technology. The challenge for America will not be to replicate the exact European or Chinese model of HSR, but to develop a model in tune with the values and habits of the U.S. domestic traveler.
Finally, as we move closer to the advent of the new Congress, we should watch two key players who will have a significant role in whether HSR was a fad of Obama's early days in office or a serious economic venture meant to bring America into the twenty-first century of passenger rail. They are Ray LaHood and John Mica. If there is one issue that could transcend partisan politics, it is transportation. If HSR is to have any chance of progressing to the next level, success will depend on how well these two men can build the needed consensus. In this regard, call me an optimist.