The Obama administration recently announced the winners in its initial distribution of funds for the build-out of high speed rail systems across the country. Just as expected, the two states to take home the most cash were California and Florida. But the nature of their projects is very different, with California embarking on a much more ambitious agenda of connecting Anaheim to San Francisco (to be later expanded) versus Florida’s proposed Tampa-Orlando link. The Florida plan is expected to serve as a kind of pilot program, showing what high-speed rail in America might look like. The short distance between the cities (only 85 miles) and the fact that the state has already completed environmental impact studies along with other necessary planning work means that we should be able to get the link up and running by 2017.
That last figure comes from the recent issue of Wired, which has a fun multi-page spread on the future of HSR in the US. As they note, official hopes are running high for getting HSR off the ground in this country, estimating seven years for the initial Florida line, 10 years for the Texas T-Bone between Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, and 15 years to connect LA and San Francisco. But if the experiences of other countries are any indication, it should be possible to get out network built much more quickly:
In 1990, Spain’s rail network was in even worse shape than America’s: Trains were slow and equipment dilapidated. Then the government made a commitment to modernize. Spain now has one of the most extensive high-speed systems in the world. Likewise, Taiwan built its entire infrastructure in just the past 10 years — despite a population density greater than that of the northeastern US.
And really, we have every reason to get moving as quickly as possible. Mark Reutter, over at the Progressive Policy Institute, released a report last month entitled “Fast Track to the Future: A High Speed Rail Agenda for America” that lays out a compelling case for the necessity of HSR in this country. Beyond the obvious benefits of engaged in a large infrastructure project (i.e., jobs, economic development along access points, etc.), he notes that despite how expensive HSR might seem, the alternative is much more expensive. We’re on track as a country to grow by 90 million people by 2050 and continuing to simply build highways and airports is entirely infeasible as well as environmentally disastrous.
Simply put, while we’ve got a lot of work to catch up on compared to countries in Western Europe and Eastern Asia, this is a project we can’t start soon enough.