Imagine the U.S. crisscrossed with rapid, efficient, and accessible high-speed passenger trains. That is the ambition of the nation’s youngest Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg. Vision-casting in February, Buttigieg said he wants the United States to be “leading the world when it comes to access to high-speed rail.”
This comment is optimistic given the United States present-day passenger rail service. There is promise, when considering that Acela Amtrak is currently America’s fastest passenger train, reaching speeds up to 150 mph. However, the route only runs along the Northeastern Corridor of the United States with stops between Washington, D.C. and Boston. This leaves out the remaining cities spread across America, and ticket prices are not feasible for many potential travelers.
While expensive and with limited destinations, the Amtrak’s Acela is one of the United States biggest advancements in high-speed rail. Currently, high-speed passenger trains have not been given the same priority in America as they have in other countries. The U.S. trails behind Asia and Europe in high-speed rail advancement. Here it is simply not as popular a method of transportation.
The groundwork for eventual rapid passenger rail has already been partially laid, specifically with the creation of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in 1967. The FRA began exploring the development of high-speed rail networks in the 1980s and created a series of reports on emerging corridors in the U.S. with the assistance of Amtrak. The five high-speed rail corridors identified included locations in the Midwest, Pacific Northwest, Southeast, Florida, and California under the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) (PL 105-178).
The act passed in 1998, and six additional corridor authorizations were designated. An additional 11 corridors were later designated, with the addition of the Gulf Coast corridor, Keystone corridor, Empire State corridor, and extensions to the Southeast, Midwest, and Chicago Hub corridors. As the decades passed, the torch was then passed to the Obama administration, where hopes of implementation of high-speed rail in the U.S. were quickly dashed. Plans and routes have come and gone, but never materialized.
In 2011, President Obama’s high speed-rail program was eliminated by Congress for a myriad of reasons, most notably that it was too costly. His requests for $8 billion and $53 billion in program funding was denied, and high-speed rail advancements remained mostly dormant. Today, the Biden administration seeks to revive the trove of existing plans to finally achieve a national high-speed rail network.
Secretary Buttigieg is not the only person in favor of advancements in high-speed rail. Recent polls on behalf of the Association of American Railroads and the OneRail Coalition demonstrate American’s favorable opinions of high-speed rail development. Some 64 percent of Americans view public transit and passenger trains favorably after the pandemic, and 75 percent of Americans agree that shifting more trips to public transit and high-speed rail would effectively address the influence of transportation on climate change.
Not only can development of high-speed rail help curb carbon emissions from our transport sector, but the benefits from the economic stimulus may also be vast. A 2017 study by Georgetown University estimated that a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure would create 11 million jobs.
Biden’s infrastructure plan would include $80 billion for rail. While no specific plans have been proposed yet, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has made it clear that moving U.S. transportation toward high-speed rail and away from car culture will be one of his top priorities. Potential economic stimulus, positive impact for the climate, and affordable means of transportation may be simply too beneficial for Americans to pass up.
Written by Rachel Spencer, Communications Intern
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.