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The Argument for High-Speed Rail

Question: Is high-speed rail a feasible solution for our transportation issues? 

Joseph Sussman: Whenever my neighbors go on vacation or on business to Europe or Asia, I know when they come back since they know what I do for a living, they’re going to say, “Joe, why don’t we have high speed rail in this country. I just went to France, I just went to Germany, I just went to Japan, and everyone gets whisked around the country at high speeds in a very convenient way. We don’t have to deal with all the hassles of checking it at airports and so on and so forth. Why can’t the U.S. do it?” And it’s an excellent question, and in some sense there are a variety of answers that one could come up with, but the simplest answer is that, to date, we have been unwilling to pay within the public sector for developing these systems. The systems that I alluded to a moment ago, France, Germany, and Japan were all initially built by the government and the government of the United States has chosen to make its investments in other areas in highways and in air traffic control systems and the like. 

Now why is that? Certainly we have as talented a group of transportation policymakers here in this country as in those other countries. One of the problems is that from a size point of view, from a geographic point of view, this is a huge country. Much larger than any of the countries that I’ve mentioned. We’re 3,000 miles, 5,000 kilometers, coast to coast, and 1,500 miles, maybe 2,000 plus kilometers, from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. These are huge distances. And if, in fact, we were to build high-speed rail on a national basis, it’s very unclear even if we were able to do that. And let me emphasize, I am not advocating that we do that. That high speed rail would take much of a bite out of, for example, coast to coast travel because even though you are going at 200 something miles an hour, you’ve still got to go 3,000 miles, and it’s a long ride. 

That said, there are many part of the United States that would be ideally suited for high-speed rail. And here we’re talking about corridors in which the distances are on the order of 500 miles or so, or less. And here we have an opportunity to compete quite actively with the airlines. So, we have, of course the northeast corridor, the Washington to Boston corridor, and even going further north and further south, in which we have the only system that, by any definition could be called high speed rail, and by international standards it’s really not at all. But the northeast corridor, very densely populated corridor would be ideal, particularly given the highway congestion on highway 95 going north and south, particularly given the congestion at the airports in the Boston area, the three metropolitan airports in New York; Liberty in Newark and LaGuardia and Kennedy, and in Washington with Reagan National and Dulles. These are congested airports. And one of the reasons they are congested is a lot of people flying back and forth on the corridor. If we were able to attract those people to a high-speed rail system, one could see tremendous benefits from the point of view of airline congestion, airport congestion, I should say, being diminished. So, that’s one obvious example. 

There are many others. You could have a series of corridors around Chicago; Chicago/St Louis, Chicago/Minneapolis/St Paul, Chicago/Detroit, and so on would be ideally suited from a distance point of view. You have the Texas triangle, which is the cities of San Antonio, Dulles, and Houston, all of which rank in the top 10 population-wise of this country and high speed rails zipping people around the great state of Texas would be excellent. Florida is another example. Florida, we talk about a system that can go from Tampa to Orlando, and then south to Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, as again, an ideally situation example of a corridor that would make sense for high-speed rail. And possibly, most important, and probably most advanced in terms of thinking is a system for the state of California. So, extending from the north in San Francisco down to Los Angeles and down to San Diego is a prospect, and even further north beyond San Francisco, it could extend in principle up to Portland and Seattle, Washington, and even into Canada, into Vancouver. 

Question: What are the challenges to implementing such a system? 

Joseph Sussman: The problem is political. It’s very difficult to; in fact, allocate large sums of money to one particular region of the country and not favoring the other regions of the country with this same technology. When the interstate system was conceived and began to be built in the middle of the 1950’s, in President Eisenhower’s administration, the notion was this would be an interconnection system for the whole nation; for urban, for rural, for everybody to get their piece of the action. Whether you were the state of New York, or whether you were in Wyoming, you were going to get a piece of the interstate action and get some benefit from it. I don’t know if the same is viable from a high-speed rail point of view. I don’t know if the case can be made. 

So, the problem is, you would have to invest in a relatively small set of geographical areas in the country to have it make sense and since, in this great republic of ours, the state of Wyoming with, I don’t know, half a million people has two Senators, and the state of California with, I don’t know, 38 million people has two Senators, so it’s very difficult to move forward unless the rural states have some benefit and one would have to work hard to characterize this as a benefit to them other than by an overall improvement in economic development for the nation at large. 

Now, President Obama is, to my knowledge, the first President of the United States who has ever used the word, high-speed rail in a sentence in a positive way. Something that could make sense, and in fact, it is quite interesting, his comments have reverberated around the country – around the world. This past summer, I was in Tokyo visiting the East Japan Railway Company, a company I have been doing work with for about the last 20 years, and I had my prepared talk and they said, “We hope you’re going to talk about high speed rail in the United States since President Obama is now speaking about it.” And I had a very similar experience in Portugal where we are also doing a lot of work in high-speed rail. When I went there to give a talk, again they aid, Professor Sussman, we hope you’re going to talk about the opportunities for high-speed rail in the United States. So, this country is still being watched as the world scratches its head and wonders why we don’t move forward with something that just seems to make so much sense. 

Recorded on January 25, 2010

Other countries have it. Why doesn’t the U.S.? Because we’ve been unwilling to pay.

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