Anyone looking for bold, game-changing infrastructure projects to jump-start employment, transform the economy and improve lives need not be stuck wistfully looking to the 1950s and Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Act. A similarly massive transportation project deserves to be undertaken today, bringing the United States into the 21st century of first-world travel: a true high-speed rail system linking the major urban centers of the country, especially in the northeast corridor.
High-speed trains have been a staple of travel in Europe since the 1970s. Japan launched its first in 1966. China’s high-speed trains are fast transforming the country, carrying almost twice as many passengers a month than the country’s domestic airline industry. Meanwhile, in the US, it takes seven hours and 23 minutes to travel by train from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. That’s about a half-hour longer than the same journey took in 1941.
“We’re behind not only France and Spain and the U.K. and Japan and China and Korea, but now Morocco and India and Vietnam are building high-speed rail,” Robert Yaro, an urban planning professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Philadelphia Inquirer back in 2010. Three years later, not much has changed.
It is not as though the demand for rail travel does not exist in the United States, even with the current slow speeds. Amtrak ridership rose 49 percent from 2000 to 2012, with a record 31.2 million passengers in fiscal 2012. More than a third of these riders were in the Northeast Corridor, between Washington, D.C. and Boston. The trip from Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia currently takes about 1 hour and 50 minutes on a regional train, and only slightly faster—about 1 hour, 35 minutes—on an Acela express. High-speed rail would make the trip in 54 minutes. Philadelphia to New York, now 1 hour, 20 minutes and 1 hour, ten minutes on regional and Acela trains respectively, would be cut to 37 minutes. The Economic Development Research Group estimates that the building of a high-speed line in the US would create 24,000 construction and manufacturing jobs per $1 billion in capital investment and 41,000 operation and maintenance jobs per $1 billion in operating investment. With places like China spending $100 billion a year, we are talking about a lot of jobs.
The problem in the United States is a lack of political will—especially on the part of Republicans—to put forward the long-term investment necessary for such a massive project. Estimates come in at about $1 trillion dollars invested over forty years—about $25 billion a year. Such spending would require some new revenue-generating measures, from a gas tax to increased sales taxes. Enough moderate Republicans, particularly in the northeast, must overcome their tax-aversion while Democrats summon the political will for such a necessary and crucial project.
Obviously high-speed rail is not just some liberal policy fantasy. It is a necessity. A high-speed rail system connecting the northeast corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C. within five years should be a major national priority. It would transform the region’s economy, connecting people, businesses and ideas like never before; it would reduce carbon emissions and the use of gasoline, saving people money; it would mean a modern infrastructure for the United States in the 21st century, a true public good; and, most crucially, it would improve people’s lives. Isn’t that what government spending should be all about?