Bipartisan Support for High-Speed Rail Mostly on Track

The Obama Administration recently authorized a $53 billion investment in high-speed passenger rail that will provide modern transit access to 80 percent of Americans while creating thousands of needed jobs. About $8 billion will fund new rail corridor development and existing rail improvement in the first year to set the stage for a national high-speed rail system. This huge investment in national transit infrastructure will be the largest in decades and speaks to a renewed commitment to sustainable development initiatives on the grand scale. The plan will also put into motion the long-time goals of transit advocates and urban planners alike.

Despite the (likely underestimated) price tag, concerns over budget shortfalls, and the emphasis on public transit, the plan is receiving bipartisan support in Congress and at the state level. At a time when gas prices are set to reach $5 per gallon, you’d hope that common sense and the desire for energy independence would make support for high-speed rail a sure thing—a nonpartisan issue. But the usual skeptics remain, of course, including republican governors from Ohio and Wisconsin, who rejected federal money for the project. The biggest upset has been Florida governor, Rick Scott’s refusal of more than $2 billion for a section between Tampa and Orlando that was set to become a shining example of intercity rail, job creation (more than 24,000 projected), and improved livability. Despite a swift backlash, Florida’s state Supreme Court upheld the governor’s decision and the money will now be available to other states including Vermont, Rhode Island, Virginia, Delaware, New York, and California. In an effort to support disheartened high-speed rail supporters in Florida, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has agreed to let a regional rail authority in central Florida compete for the funding.

Rail corridors are set to run along the eastern seaboard and gulf coast with networks in the Midwest, northeast Texas, southern California, and the Pacific Northwest, the whole of which will encompass most larger cities and metro areas. Along with providing faster and more efficient transit options than highways and freeways, rail can more easily access the heart of a city’s downtown core both enhancing livability and connectivity. Not to mention that being dropped off in the city center means avoiding the time spent going to and from airports, and also skipping the TSA, as for now train riders can arrive merely minutes before their train departs.

It’s true that the proposed funding is most likely a drop in the bucket towards the ultimate price tag and that it will take some work to get more people to see the benefits of rail travel—but can you really put a price on reducing dependence on foreign oil, improving air quality, or simply reducing daily commute times? It boils down to the triple bottom line.