TransportationSince the completion of the interstate highway system two decades ago, there has been no national vision driving federal transportation policy. Today, our nation's economy is constrained by crippling traffic and air congestion in metropolitan regions, by its vulnerability to volatile gas prices, and by the lack of transportation options in most communities. These problems, combined with the need to plan for projected population growth and respond to global climate change, calls for an overhaul to the planning and management of our transportation systems. America needs a transportation policy for the 21st century that can help rebuild the economy, promote energy independence, protect the environment, and provide affordable and dependable mobility options for all Americans.
America 2050 is calling for a strategic national transportation plan that provides the underpinnings for robust, competitive and sustainable growth in the 21st century in the way the interstate system shaped America's development in the 20th century. This strategic plan would include a "Trans-American Network" of intercity passenger travel and goods movement investments reaching all areas of the country. It should include clear federal objectives for transportation investments, new tools and resources to metropolitan regions to coordinate land use and transportation investments, and a range of new funding sources.
The Trans-American Network and the regional and local investments will likely take a generation or more to implement--which is why we must get started today. The nation's current transportation law expires in September 2009 and the debate over the next surface transportation bill has already begun.
Our recommendations for the upcoming transportation bill focus on five areas:
- Clear national objectives for federal transportation investments to which states and regions are held accountable, such as: promoting economic productivity, transportation connectivity, energy efficiency, climate stability, safety and health, and equitable access to jobs.
- Establishing a Trans-American Network of intercity passenger travel and goods movement to complete our nation's transportation system and to provide reliable and energy efficient means of moving people and goods.
- A commitment to system preservation to maintain our existing roads, bridges, and transit systems in good repair.
- Direct funding and greater flexibility to metropolitan regions to implement comprehensive transportation and land use plans that boost economic productivity, energy efficiency, and transportation options.
- Expanded sources of revenue at the federal, state and local levels, including raising the gas tax, establishing an infrastructure bank, and new financing tools, such as investments by state pension funds in revenue-generating infrastructure and PPPs.
America 2050 has commissioned and released a number of transportation policy papers and recommendation in recent years, relevant to the upcoming bill. They include:
Recommendations for a Trans-American Passenger Network
- Trans-American Passenger Network Map
- Policy Brief
- Talking about High-Speed Rail on Fox Business News
- Intercity Passenger Travel Research
- Using Social Security and Pension Funds to invest in infrastructure
- Future Financing Options to Meet Highway and Transit Needs
- A Transportation Strategy for 21st Century America
- Policies to Transcend Boundaries and Transition to a New Era
- Legislative Considerations for Long Term Policy Change
A recent survey conducted by the American Public Transportation Association reveals that a majority of people surveyed would be willing to choose high-speed rail over air or car travel if it were available. These results come at a time when the opportunity to expand mobility in the nation through investing in high-speed rail systems has never been greater, and confirms that many Americans understand the potential benefits and convenience of fast intercity train travel.
A new proposal by the House Ways and Means Committee would eliminate a crucial source of mass transit funding, posing a major threat to the nation's transit systems.
The bill would prohibit the use of gasoline-tax revenue to support public transportation, a funding stream that has been in place for more than three decades. If the bill were to pass, it would introduce a level of uncertainty that will make planning for capital projects far more difficult and expensive.
Around the country, over one-third of Amtrak passengers ride routes that receive substantial funding support from states. These 15 states understand the importance of passenger rail to their residents, businesses, and economies, and have invested in these routes to maintain and improve service. These routes are referred to as state-supported corridors and in 2010, they carried over 9 million passengers, about one-third of Amtrak's annual ridership. A new budget proposal passed by the House of Representatives earlier this month proposes to eliminate every last one of them. The same budget proposal cuts funding for the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program to zero.
Criticism of Amtrak commonly focuses in on its federal subsidies. However, these 15 states have taken it upon themselves to supplement scarce federal resources and make critical investments in these corridors to improve service and grow ridership. The House budget proposal unfairly punishes these states for this and places the burden of budget cuts squarely on the shoulders of passengers on these state-supported routes.
Please contact your elected officials and tell them to fight this budget proposal that reverses decades of progress to vital passenger rail corridors in all corners of the country. Visit www.StandUpForTrains.org today to send your Senators, Representative, and President Obama the message that you want America to have a stronger national passenger rail system.
Transportation advocates were gearing up for a big push to ensure that the federal surface transportation program did not expire at the end of the month, but in a remarkable show of common cause and swift action on Tuesday, the House unanimously approved a six-month extension of SAFETEA-LU, as well as a four-month extension of the authorizing legislation for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The Senate still has to pass this bill before it's final, but Harry Reid has promised to move it through quickly, leaving transportation advocates breathing a little easier.
The federal surface transportation bill, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA-LU), which funds federal highway, safety, and transit programs, originally expired in 2009. Since then, rather than pass a new, long-term bill that reauthorizes these important programs and guarantees funding assistance for the thousands of active transportation projects around the country, Congress has passed seven short-term extensions, essentially kicking the can down the road. These Band-Aid extension solutions do not give states the funding assurances they need to complete major infrastructure projects that often span several years and provide hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs to American workers.
"I'm calling on Congress," said President Barack Obama on August 31st in a speech on the lawn of the Rose Garden, "as soon as they come back, to pass a clean extension of the surface transportation bill." Upon hearing this, many rolled their eyes. Advocates around the country were already beginning to set up the phone banks and prepare the advocacy letters we were going to send warning of the dire consequences of letting these programs shut down or waiting until the last minute to extend them. This time, our leaders did what was necessary to keep America moving forward with time to spare.
The bill, the Surface and Air Transportation Programs Extension Act of 2011, extends SAFETEA-LU through March and the FAA through January. Highway and transit programs would receive funding at fiscal year 2011 levels - $19.8 billion for highways and $4.2 billion for transit paid for out of the Highway Trust Fund. The FAA will receive about $5.4 billion. This is the eighth time SAFETEA-LU and the 22nd time the FAA bill have been extended.
Last night, President Obama gave an impassioned speech to a joint session of Congress, outlining his $447 billion economic package to put Americans back to work and provide economic relief to businesses and families through comprehensive tax cuts and unemployment insurance benefits. While critical details of the plan have yet to be released, including the all important question of how to pay for it, the broad concepts are sound. The nation's transportation system will be affected in the following ways:
President Obama's plan, the American Jobs Act, includes an investment of approximately $50 billion in federal funds for transportation projects around the country. According to the fact sheets posted on the White House's website, the funds are intended for transportation infrastructure projects that modernize our nation's highway, public transit, intercity rail, and aviation systems. The President cited necessary upgrades to our air traffic control system, which a recent RPA report, Upgrading to World Class: The Future of the Regions Airports, recommended in order to expand capacity at the New York metropolitan region's heavily congested airports.
In order to fund major transit and rail transportation projects, the President's economic package also calls for investing about $5 billion to expand the U.S. DOT's Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program and FHWA's Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) credit assistance program to help leverage federal resources. An additional $2 billion would be spent on improving our nation's intercity passenger rail service (presumably going towards another round of grants for the federal High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program).
The American Jobs Act would also establish a National Infrastructure Bank to help build a wide range of infrastructure projects of national and regional significance by leveraging private and public capital, and capitalize it with $10 billion in seed money. To speed the delivery of these infrastructure projects, and create jobs and achieve their benefits faster, the President would follow up on a Memorandum that was recently issued that set forth a plan to streamline time-consuming environmental review and permitting processes.
Download the Fact Sheet: American Jobs Act (PDF)
Download the Presidential Memorandum - Speeding Infrastructure Development through More Efficient and Effective Permitting and Environmental Review (PDF)
A new documentary film entitled, "Local Motives", by young movie-maker and Macalester College student, James Christenson, takes an in depth, balanced look at the motivations that drive the pursuit of high-speed, commuter, and light rail lines, and the process of decision-making that dictates their final alignments. Driven by local economic development plans, many local towns strive to have stations, while other neighborhoods have been unwilling bisected at the expense of local residents and community cohesion.
"Whether it is a state, a county, a city, or local business interest," Christenson writes about the film on his website, "everyone wants a rail route for fear that they will fade into irrelevancy if their territory is not connected to the emerging transportation network. And they will do [whatever it takes to get connected] at whatever the cost."
Produced by James Christenson and Clay Steinman
(55 minutes, 9 seconds)
Reprinted from RPA's Spotlight on the Region.
By Daniel Ferry, Summer Associate, America 2050
The tragedy last month that saw 40 people killed aboard a Chinese high-speed train has been used in the United States as fodder to attack the very idea of investing in passenger rail.
"[S]o much for the grand project ... that President Obama held up as a model for the United States," said Charles Lane recently, writing in the Washington Post.
This kind of logic doesn't hold up. For one thing, the death count pales in comparison to the tens of thousands of Americans killed in automobile accidents - nearly 35,000 every year, the equivalent of a full Boeing 737 crashing every single weekday.
Still, in an emotional way it's easy to see how such a high-profile disaster can discredit the vaunted Chinese high-speed rail project. It was just in January that President Barack Obama did indeed look, with few qualifications, to China as a model, comparing China's clear progress in high-speed rail - 5,000 miles already constructed, with speeds regularly exceeding 200 mph - with the space race with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
"Our infrastructure used to be the best - but our lead has slipped," said Obama in his 2011 State of the Union Address. "China is building faster trains.... This is our generation's Sputnik moment. At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country or somewhere else."
Even before the fatal crash, some of the shine was already wearing off of China's vaunted rail system. Last February, Chinese Minister of Railways Liu Zhijun, who had presided over the high-speed rail building boom, was abruptly dismissed from office after charges of rampant corruption.
Now anxiety is mounting over how the Ministry will pay the debts it has incurred, and reports began to emerge last spring that the breakneck pace of construction was only possible because workers cut corners and compromised safety. Such concerns ultimately led the Ministry of Railways to reduce the maximum speed of trains from 217 to 186 mph, but that did not prevent the collision in Zhejiang.
So, do China's recent problems suggest that the United States should quit pursuing high-speed rail? Not at all. Recent events should rightfully dampen the exuberance that led China to ignore safety considerations. Yet, American observers would be wrong to dismiss high-speed rail as a powerful driver for the future of the United States. High-speed rail still makes sense for Americans, for reasons that China's experience will likely reinforce.
While China may have overshot in attempting to build too much too quickly, there is good reason to believe that the Chinese investment in passenger rail is ultimately still a valuable and beneficial project.
That's the view of investment bank Morgan Stanley: their research arm published a May 15th report, China High Speed Rail: On the Economic Fast Track, which found that "[h]igh-speed rail is key to China's balanced, sustainable double-digit growth." The authors concluded that despite setbacks, China's buildout will boost the nation's economy and standards of living by "improving market access, encouraging population mobility, and enhancing logistics efficiency ... which in turn will stimulate innovation and creativity and lead to the creation of new businesses in the long-term."
We here in the United States have made critical infrastructure investments of this scale before: between 1950 and 2000, as the country grew by 130 million people, the United States spent nearly $500 billion (inflation-adjusted) developing the Interstate Highway System. This investment has paid dividends, underpinning a half-century of strong economic growth, but today highway congestion chokes our cities and worsens faster than we can build new roads.
With many of our busiest highways unable to add capacity due to urban development, we need a new method of connecting our cities. High-speed rail can meet this need, moving more Americans faster and more efficiently, helping to relieve our over-burdened roads and airports, and reducing our dependence on foreign oil. As we prepare to add 140 million new Americans by 2050, we must again invest in our future.
We don't need high-speed rail because China has it. We need high-speed rail because, despite its initial cost, it is the best way of tying the country together, uniting regional economies, and facilitating the mobility that will allow the United States to compete and win in the new global marketplace. Americans shouldn't draw hasty conclusions from the Chinese case because, simply put, American high-speed rail is for Americans.