High-speed rail picks up steam
For decades, travelers in Europe and Asia have been able to dart from city to city on high-speed trains. Now, U.S. rail supporters see the $8 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds the Obama administration plans to send to states for high-speed rail projects as a down payment on a network in this country that could have many benefits for cities along the routes.
The funds are being distributed to projects in 31 states, with California and Florida receiving the largest grants. California was awarded $2.3 billion, $2.25 billion of which will go toward constructing a connection between Northern California and Southern California. Florida is receiving $1.25 billion to build a line between Tampa and Orlando. Some of the funding will go to new construction, with the rest going to upgrade existing systems. “It’s an important signal being sent to the states that the federal government is taking high-speed rail more seriously than in the past,” says Patrick Phillips, CEO of the Washington-based Urban Land Institute. However, much more investment in high-speed rail is needed from the federal and state governments and the private sector, such as the $9.95 billion in general obligation bonds California will issue to contribute to a high-speed rail project between Los Angeles and San Francisco, says John Robert Smith, president and CEO of Washington-based Reconnecting America.
Connecting cities and regions has the potential to benefit local governments specifically in a number of ways. By shortening the commute, residents would be able to more easily live in less expensive areas while working in major cities, Phillips says. Employers are more likely to locate in cities where they can draw from a larger labor force, there would be environmental benefits from getting more cars off the road, and the economic cost of gas price spikes would decrease, he says. “First, cities thought they needed to be on the interstate. Then, they needed an airport to go after major industry,” Smith says. “Rail connections are that third piece to draw investment.”
Despite new federal funding, states will have to come up with matching funds, which could kill at least some high-speed rail plans, according to the Washington-based Cato Institute. “To pay for the trains, the states must either raise taxes or cut budgets for education, social services and other programs.”
Source: Randal O’Toole, Cato Institute senior fellow, from the article “Take a pass on trains,” Feb. 18, 2010, www.cato.org
Jennifer Grzeskowiak is a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based freelance writer.