The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

The U.S. is pursuing high-speed rail projects to enhance economic growth, environmental sustainability, and transportation efficiency despite significant initial costs and ongoing debates.

For decades, the question has lingered: Will the U.S. ever commit to building a super high-speed rail network? For at least the past two decades, it’s been clear that the U.S. trails far behind Europe, and especially China and Japan, in this arena.

President Biden’s decision to finally address this issue marked a significant shift. He made the politically risky move to allocate substantial public funds for two major projects: a high-speed rail system connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles, and another linking Los Angeles to Las Vegas.

Looking ahead to the next few years of rail development in the U.S., two key questions emerge: Does the country genuinely need a high-speed rail network? And what innovative solutions can ensure an affordable rollout of such a system?

The U.S. undoubtedly needs a high-speed rail network to tackle several pressing issues. To remain competitive both technologically and politically, the country must keep pace with global transportation advancements.

The benefits of such a system are extensive, spanning economic growth, environmental sustainability, and enhanced mobility and connectivity.

A robust high-speed rail network can drive economic development by enabling the efficient movement of people and goods nationwide. It can stimulate job creation directly through construction and operation, and indirectly by allowing businesses to expand their reach and access new markets.

For example, the University of Illinois’ “High-Speed Rail Feasibility Study” for the Illinois Department of Transportation estimated the creation of 409,000 to 792,000 jobs during the construction phase and 10,890 to 13,820 jobs per year in the first decade of operation.

High-speed rail attracts investment and fuels the growth of various industries along its corridors, revitalizing urban centers and creating new economic hubs.

Transportation significantly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. High-speed rail offers a greener alternative to air and road travel, producing significantly lower emissions per passenger mile.

A high-speed rail network can play a crucial role in mitigating climate change and improving air quality, especially in densely populated urban areas, by reducing reliance on fossil fuel-powered transportation.

The U.S., with its vast geography, needs efficient transportation to connect its diverse regions and communities. High-speed rail can offer a convenient and comfortable mode of travel, with competitive journey times compared to air travel for distances up to 500 miles.

It can ease congestion on highways and at airports, reducing travel times and enhancing the overall quality of life for commuters and travelers alike.

While the initial capital investment for high-speed rail projects can be substantial, several innovative solutions can help ensure a more affordable deployment in the U.S.

Leveraging private sector expertise and financing can mitigate the financial burden on public entities. The University of Illinois IDOT study recommended exploring public-private partnerships (PPPs) as a viable option for realizing high-speed rail projects. Successful examples of PPPs in transportation infrastructure can be found in countries like Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom.

An incremental or blended approach, upgrading existing rail infrastructure in phases, can provide nearer-term transportation benefits while gradually improving intercity travel times and quality. This method can reduce initial capital costs and allow for a more manageable deployment.

Implementing value capture mechanisms, such as tax increment financing or special assessment districts, can help capture a portion of the increased property values and economic benefits generated by high-speed rail projects. These funds can then be reinvested into the infrastructure, reducing reliance on public funding.

Exploring alternative financing strategies, such as green bonds, infrastructure investment funds, or public-private partnership models, can attract private capital and diversify funding sources for high-speed rail projects.

Embracing technological advancements in construction techniques, materials, and project management can reduce costs and improve efficiency. Using modular construction methods, advanced materials like carbon fiber reinforced polymers, and building information modeling can streamline the construction process and optimize resource utilization.

Integrating high-speed rail into a comprehensive transportation plan that includes robust local and regional public transit systems can maximize the benefits and ridership of the network. This approach can enhance the overall efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the transportation system.

The U.S. stands to gain significant economic, environmental, and mobility benefits from developing a high-speed rail network. While the initial investment may be substantial, innovative solutions are emerging rapidly.

As the Biden administration embraces these solutions, and as states and their partners foster collaborative approaches among stakeholders, the U.S. is poised to overcome the challenges and realize the transformative potential of high-speed rail.

This article was originally posted in Tomorrow’s Affairs.

While advocating for systemic change over 4 decades, Gordon Feller has been called upon to help leaders running some of the world’s major organizations: World Bank, UN, World Economic Forum, Lockheed, Apple, IBM, Ford, the national governments of Germany, Canada, US – to name a few. With 40 years in Silicon Valley, Feller’s 300+ published articles cover the full spectrum of energy/environment/technology issues, reporting from more than 40 countries. Obama/Biden appointee to Federal comm. on innovation; Global Fellow at The Smithsonian; Winner: Prime Minister Abe Fellowship, Japan.