Happening Now

Hearing Looks at Once-in-a-Generation HSR Opportunity

May 7, 2021

A U.S. House hearing on high-speed rail provided tantalizing evidence that Congress is finally getting serious about a federal high-speed rail program. Spearheaded by a younger generation of elected officials, members of the committee discussed the “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to build this truly transformative form of transportation in the U.S.

A U.S. House hearing on high-speed rail yesterday provided tantalizing evidence that Congress is finally getting serious about a federal high-speed rail program. Spearheaded by a younger generation of elected officials, members of the Committee discussed the “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to build this truly transformative form of transportation in the U.S.

“When Unlimited Potential Meets Limited Resources: The Benefits and Challenges of High-Speed Rail and Emerging Rail Technologies,” held by the House Transportation Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials, heard from two panels of railroad operators, labor, local officials, tech evangelists, and even opponents to look at the opportunities and challenges facing high-speed rail in the U.S. Throughout the hearing, there was a sense—expressed by both Committee members and panelists—that if done right, high-speed rail could shape America’s development over the next 100 years to the same degree that prior investments in highways and aviation shaped the 20th century.

“Congress needs to remain focused on developing a national program,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Chair of the full Committee. “After all, it was a national vision that led to the creation of our highways and aviation networks, spurring unprecedented economic growth, connecting urban and rural communities alike, and creating millions of jobs. At the time, that was also a pie-in-the-sky undertaking. Now we can’t imagine life without it. Rail is the next step."

As the hearing title suggests, there was also discussion about the high costs of modernizing the U.S. rail network, and that this transportation reauthorization cycle would constitute the first steps in a long-term process.

“Even if we invest the tens of billions of dollars that is in the American Jobs Plan, it will not be enough to fully implement every project we will hear about today,” said Railroad Subcommittee Chair Donald Payne, Jr. (D-NJ). “That is why we must have today’s conversations that could be the basis for tomorrow’s solutions."

You can watch the full four-hour hearing online. We’ve excerpted the highlights below.

Understanding the Status Quo

From the start, Committee members took pains to emphasize that the current transportation system was the product of deliberate choices made by past elected officials, that those choices were backed by meaningful public funding, and that the woeful state of our rail network isn’t a unique product of U.S. geography and national character, but the result of government policy.

“There is a discrepancy in historical federal investment between highways, aviation, and intercity passenger rail,” explained Committee staff in the summary of the subject matter sent around before the hearing. “In terms of federal investment in transportation modes, between 1949 and 2017, more than $2 trillion in federal funds have been invested in our nation’s highways and over $777 billion in aviation. Federal investment in passenger rail began in 1971 with the creation of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak). In contrast to highways and aviation, between 1971 and 2020, $96 billion in federal funds have been invested in Amtrak.”

That point was underscored by many of the panelists, most succinctly by former U.S. DOT Deputy Secretary and Maryland Secretary of Transportation John Porcari:

“If you wonder why America’s transportation system is configured the way it is today, I would urge you to follow the money. Allow me to illustrate the point from personal experience. The Maryland Department of Transportation is uniquely organized as a multimodal state transportation organization including highway, transit, aviation, passenger rail and other components under one roof and served by a unified, flexible state transportation trust fund (TTF). That single TTF provides funds for every transportation mode, using revenues from every transportation source. As I evaluated ways to increase capacity in the Baltimore-New York City corridor, these were my choices:

  • Add air capacity between BWI Thurgood Marshall airport and New York, with 90% federal funding for runway and taxiway capacity improvements;
  • Add highway capacity on I-95 to New York, with 80% federal funding;
  • Add passenger rail capacity, with zero federal funding.

“In other words, I had to find either 10%, 20% or 100% of the project funding from the state’s transportation trust fund, depending on the transportation mode I chose. For that 215-mile segment, a passenger rail trip makes far more sense than driving or flying, yet passenger rail capacity was the least likely alternative to be selected.

“If you wonder why we have the unbalanced transportation system we have today, follow the money.”

‘No Build’ Not an Option

When discussing the high cost of building high-speed rail systems, both Committee members and panelists provided an important piece of context: if we don’t build high-speed rail, we’ll have to build out capacity in our existing highway and aviation networks. With much of the “low-hanging fruit” gone in the development of highways and airports, these alternatives often cost more than building a high-speed rail line.

“To match the people-carrying capacity of Phase 1 of the high-speed rail system, California would need to invest $122 to $199 billion toward building 4,196 highway lane miles (the equivalent of a new, six lane highway), and the construction of 91 new airport gates and 2 new runways,” explained Porcari.

However, while the cost to California of providing the required highway and airport capacity as an alternative is double the $69-99 billion estimate for Phase 1 of the high-speed rail system, the current imbalance in the federal funding structure creates significant incentives for local officials to simply push ahead with building more lanes, even if it isn’t the best solution.

Rep. Marilyn Strickland (D-WA) asked Rachel Smith, President and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, about the cost of adding a lane to I-5 in place of developing the Cascadia high-speed rail corridor.

“The bottom line is, there is no way to [provide] the capacity to move people through highway systems as there is on transit,” said Smith. “Every rail line that we add [carries] exponentially more people. When we really think about the efficient movement of people and goods, there is absolutely a need for our highway system to work… to carry goods from our manufacturing [centers] and farms into our communities, cities and towns. But for the efficient movement of people, we really need to have robust investments in transit. And rail—reliable, grade-separated rail—exponentially moves more people, and does it at a cost lower than a new highway lane—in our region or any region.”

As a comparison, adding one lane of highway in each direction on I-5 would cost $108 billion (more than double the construction cost of Cascadia HSR), and would take the same length of time to build. And this construction would merely sustain current levels of congestion, providing none of the benefits unique to passenger rail while exacerbating the environmental toll of highway usage.

“Conservative estimates place ridership at between 2-3 million riders annually with reduction of 6 million metric tons of CO2 emissions over the first 40 years,” said Smith “$355 billion in economic growth is projected with 200,000 new jobs related to construction and ongoing operation.”

A Continuum of Rail Services

Many of the panelists took pains to emphasize that high-speed rail is only one part of a well-functioning rail network. For high-speed rail to work, there need to be conventional rail lines, regional rail systems, and local transit all feeding into high-speed trunk lines.

“‘High-speed rail’ encompasses several different types of services arranged along a continuum with generally fuzzy boundaries—and we need all of them in the United States if we are to realize high speed rail’s potential,” said Amtrak President William Flynn.

“In nearly every nation, conventional rail service is the foundation for the development of successful high-speed rail service,” added Flynn later in his testimony. “Improvement or initiation of conventional rail service can occur much more quickly than construction of new high-speed rail lines, and can set the stage for high-speed rail service by building a ready market and existing passenger ridership that high-speed rail can tap when it arrives.”

That echoes a point our own Jim Mathews made in a statement issued in conjunction with the High Speed Rail Alliance and the U.S. High Speed Rail Association.

“High-speed rail will play a critical role in America’s passenger rail network. Texas Central, for instance, will not only provide a much-needed alternative to the congested Interstate-45 corridor—it will also close a key gap in the Amtrak network, and provide a solid foundation for the launch of additional service along other key corridors throughout the state,” said Mathews. “We appreciate the House T&I Subcommittee on Rail holding this important hearing, and we’re eager to work with Congress to create a rail program that is capable of delivering the right levels of train service to passengers all across America.”

Texas Project Draws Partisan Fire

In the day’s strangest development, the Committee’s Republican members chose to provide a platform for a critic of the Texas Central project. The Dallas – Houston project embodies many key GOP principles—it’s been developed with over $700 million private-sector funding; it has nimbly cleared all the regulatory hurdles, working with local communities and the FRA to achieve all major permitting and engineering milestones needed to begin construction; it has committed to using American products and manufacturers, with the project estimated to use more than 1 million tons of steel supplied by US steel manufacturers. However, the GOP witness, Judge Carbett “Trey” Duhon III of Waller County, Texas, spent his time attacking the project—often on truly strange grounds.

In his documentation, Duhon attempted to “debunk” the 90-minute trip time Texas Central is proposing for the 240-mile corridor:

“Around 90 minutes allegedly, but that assumes top speeds at over 200 mph and doesn’t include security screening. There will have to be TSA-level security due to terrorist and other threats. As just one example, in 2015, there was a suicide attack on a high-speed rail in Japan. The terrorist immolated himself, and smoke filled the train coach. The windows on a high-speed train can’t be opened, and the doors can only open once the train fully stops, which takes several minutes. Any fire creates an imminent risk of death by smoke inhalation. Not to be overly dramatic, the point is you won’t be able to hop on and off like it’s a bus, so the ‘back and forth between Dallas to Houston in just 90 minutes’ is misleading, to say the least.”

Duhon also objected to a statement made by former Texas Central President Robert Eckels about the fare structure: “We’re a private company. It’s going to cost as much as we can afford to charge you and you’ll be willing to pay.”

To put it mildly: it’s unusual to hear a GOP witness objecting to market-based pricing. But “high-speed rail derangement syndrome” is real, and it is powerful.

Fortunately, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) adroitly demolished Judge Duhon’s arguments against the project. We’ve queued up the exchange, and we’ll leave you with one of the most succinct rebuttals of anti-passenger rail sentiment we’ve ever seen.