Congressional High-Speed Rail Hearing Misses the Point

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The Transportation & Infrastructure Committee of the House of Representatives held a hearing on Dec. 6 to evaluate the U.S. Department of Transportation's High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program. This hearing follows two successive federal budgets (2011-2012) in which Congress has provided no new funding for the high-speed rail program. Some members of the committee strongly criticized the program's focus, while the Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, gave impassioned testimony in defense of the Administration's strategy.

The concerns that were voiced at the hearing missed the point of this critical program -- which is not only to build new high-speed rail corridors, but to expand and improve service on existing passenger rail corridors -- by focusing excessively on whether funded projects are truly "high-speed." What could have been an opportunity to hear firsthand from state leaders about the progress of passenger rail projects in Washington, Illinois, North Carolina, Maine, Connecticut, Michigan, and others was largely wasted. (A hearing focused on California is scheduled for Dec. 15.) Only Joan McDonald, New York Transportation Commissioner, was there representing a state with a passenger rail project funded by the program.

Critics of the rail program continue to insist that investments in one expensive, world class high-speed rail corridor would have been better than funding projects around the country that will provide benefits in the next five years. However, by making cost-effective improvements in existing corridors across the country, the United States is spending limited rail funding wisely and getting more bang for its buck. Projects in 32 states and the District of Columbia have been awarded planning or construction grants totaling $10.1 billion, bringing improvements such as increased frequency, reliability, faster trip times, and new rail cars. This strategy will also expand passenger rail's constituency beyond the few corridors with dependable service today to create nationwide support.

"From here," Secretary LaHood wrote on his blog, "the future is bright. During the next six months, more than $1.1 billion of new job-creating construction projects will begin." Investments in the Northeast Corridor infrastructure and rolling stock will increase the top speed of Amtrak's Acela trains from 150 to 186 mph. California's statewide high-speed rail project is set to break ground this summer. Funds awarded to Illinois will cut rail travel times between Chicago and St. Louis to four hours and introduce six new modern trains, purchased through a joint Midwest equipment order. In Connecticut, improvements to the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield Corridor will quadruple the frequency of service, going from 6 to 25 daily round trips when the project is complete.  

The network of train service that the program envisions does not, and should not, include only high-speed (220 mph) trains. It includes a variety of passenger rail services operating at different speeds, which meet the needs of local communities, connected at intermodal stations integrated with other transit services. Higher-speed regional trains supporting smaller regions and emerging markets, supported by local transit service act as feeder routes for core, dedicated, high-speed rail. One day, these services may develop the ridership to support an upgrade to dedicated, express service. In the meantime, more Americans will have alternatives to higher gas prices, dangerous roads, and traffic jams, by riding passenger rail.

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"Had the Administration candidly represented its HSR initiative for what it really is — an effort to introduce useful but modest enhancements in existing intercity Amtrak services— it would have earned some plaudits for its good intentions to improve train travel. But by pretending to have launched a "high-speed renaissance," when all evidence points to only small incremental improvements in speed and trip duration, the Administration, I believe, has suffered a serious loss of credibility. Its pledge to "bring high-speed rail to 80 percent of Americans" is not taken seriously any more."

(Excerpt from my testimony at the December 6 hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on "The HSR Program: Mistakes and Lessons Learned.")