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Transport / Mass transit

It’s time to bring high speed rail to the western US

America once led the world in transportation infrastructure.  Our railways, freeways, bridges, and airports were the envy of the developed world.

But in America today, even the most ambitious plans are limited to fixing what we already have.  The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it will cost $3.6 trillion before 2020 just to keep our existing infrastructure in working condition – something only achievable through bipartisan action in Congress.

Under these circumstances, the promise of high-speed rail may seem unrealistic and far-fetched. It is neither. A national network of high-speed rail in the United States is not only achievable; it is our most environmentally sensible and economically viable option for the future.

The problems of our existing infrastructure – and the promise of high-speed rail to solve them – are most visible in the region known as the “intermountain west”, between the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada. The intermountain west was sparsely populated when Eisenhower established the interstate highway system in 1956. But growth in this region, especially in Sun Belt metros, has exploded since the 1980s. And that growth has outpaced our ability to meet the region’s needs for critical infrastructure.

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Las Vegas, Denver, and Phoenix host some of the nation’s busiest airports by passenger volume – but Las Vegas and Phoenix are strung together by a two-lane desert road, making those cities the largest in the country not yet connected by an Interstate. These options, already under strain, are unsustainable for the region’s long-term economic and environmental future. We know this now. The only question is whether we can act on it in time.

High-speed rail makes sense for a number of reasons. At speeds of 150mph or more, travel times between Western metropolitan regions are competitive with air travel, and are much faster than Interstate road travel. Providing this modal option also reduces congestion, uses energy more efficiently, and has a lighter environmental impact than road or air travel. At a global level, such investments tie-in nicely with West Coast ports and north-south Interstate routes, creating an infrastructure foundation for competitiveness in a globalized economy.

Traveling at 150 miles per hour, high-peed rail could connect Las Vegas to Phoenix or Phoenix to Los Angeles in two hours; Las Vegas and Salt Lake City in three hours; and Salt Lake City and Denver or Reno in about three and a half hours.

One possible high speed rail network for the Intermountain West. Image: Western High Speed Rail Alliance.

These travel times are competitive with air travel — for example, 45 minutes longer than a flight from Phoenix to Las Vegas — especially when factoring in additional time to pass through security, check bags, board, and claim bags upon arrival. Given that high-speed rail tickets would be much less expensive than air travel, these connections would bring down barriers to business travel and revolutionize connectivity among these disconnected metros.

Especially for regions suffering from poor air quality, a comprehensive analysis of California’s proposed rail line shows that high-speed rail has the potential to reduce emissions relative to air travel over the life cycle of these trains. Coupled with recent decisions of states like Nevada to eliminate coal from its energy portfolio, the power generation necessary to propel the trains can also come from cleaner energy sources.

The nation has not had a true national infrastructure vision and strategy since that of President Eisenhower, an expert in logistics and strategy. The National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission recommended to Congress in a 2008 report that the entire country should be connected by high-speed rail by 2050. Ten years later, that report, while still very relevant in today’s conversations, is just gathering dust; meanwhile infrastructure experts fret about whether or not Congress can even manage to sustain the Highway Trust Fund.

Much like the Interstate highway system, high-speed rail will require sizeable upfront investment, and take several years to construct. But the benefits outweigh the costs: high-speed rail promotes economic growth by improving market access, boosting productivity of knowledge workers, expanding labor markets, and attracting visitor spending. When planned thoughtfully with complementary investments in the public sector, high-speed rail can promote urban regeneration and attract commercial development.

High speed rail across the US. Image: Theshibboleth/Justthisonceokey/Wikimedia Commons.

Several European examples bear out these positive results. This is, perhaps, a silver lining of America’s failed leadership in the realm of infrastructure development: we can learn from those global metropolitan regions that now have a competitive infrastructure advantage over our domestic urban metros.

It is high time to shift the discussion from whether we should invest in infrastructure to how and where we should best invest in infrastructure.  Doing nothing is not an option, and we must not let our partisan gridlock prevent us from tackling this problem. Conservative Presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan fueled transportation investments by raising the fuel tax.  That action employed millions of Americans and both were re-elected.  Where is that leadership today?

America, it’s time to go big again.  It worked before, putting millions to work and making us the envy of the world. Let’s show the World we’re still bold and adventurous, that we can build a national high-speed rail system.  Our great nation was not built on a politics of fear and partisan discord.  Transportation infrastructure investments, bipartisan by nature, are a proven formula for economic growth and prosperity. Let’s lead again. 

Tom Skancke is the president and CEO of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, and an expert on transportation infrastructure and urban development.
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