A new report released this week by the American Public Transportation Association entitled, "Opportunity Cost of Inaction: High-Speed Rail and High Performance Passenger Rail Service," addresses just that question: what does the U.S. stand to lose, both in terms of costs incurred and benefits forgone, by not investing in high-speed rail between its largest metropolitan areas? APTA's report concludes that the stakes are indeed high - on the order of tens of billions of dollars.
The report analyzes the amount of money that would need to be spent in order to increase the capacity of existing air and highway infrastructure if high-performance passenger rail investments are not made. High-performance passenger rail, the report says, is "intercity passenger rail that is highly integrated with other transportation services" so that travel times are competitive with other intercity modes. This includes, but is not limited to fully-dedicated high-speed rail.
Looking at four of the nation's largest megaregions - the Northeast, Pacific Northwest, California, and Chicago Hub Cities - the report assesses the savings that investing in high performance rail would provide in expanding air and highway capacities, as well as the potential benefits to economic development and public transportation over the next 40 years. Establishing that full investment in high performance rail in these megaregions, including high-speed rail in the Northeast and California, can provide annual economic benefits of around $661 million in today's dollars, the report concludes that inaction, or sitting on our haunches as our highways and air space become increasingly congested, would cost the nation at least $26.4 billion over the next 40 years in foregone savings and foregone economic benefits.
The report also discusses social and environmental costs of inaction on rail issues, but does not quantify the cost of foregone savings in those realms; thus, the report's figure of $26.4 billion is a conservative estimate.
At the heart of the report's findings is a powerful rebuttal to the accusations that the nation cannot afford high-speed rail. On the contrary, this new report shows that failing to invest in high-speed rail in our rapidly-growing megaregions will prove very costly as time goes on.