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Jan McGirk

Jan McGirk

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Fast and Furious Opposition to High Speed Rail Gets U.S. Off Track

Posted: 05/ 4/11 10:58 PM ET

Why shoot down American bullet trains?

Federal plans to invest billions of dollars in a vast high-speed rail network are aggravating many right wing politicians, who refuse to be railroaded into support. As a focus of political division, high speed rail is gathering pace across the country. Conservative resistance will only hold America back, especially as gas pump prices approach five bucks per gallon.

An ambitious scheme to link all major American cities within 500 miles of one another by high-speed rail before the middle of the century is an achievable goal, according to a federation of state Public Interest Research Groups, called the United States PIRG. Building a sustainable transportation system that could ease road congestion, reduce air pollution and carbon emissions, and offer travelers in the United States more alternatives would seem to be a lofty bipartisan goal. Not quite yet, apparently. The online environmental journal, China Dialogue, explores the issue and examines the unexpected hostility:

Support for high-speed rail is seen as crucial to president Barack Obama's plans to revitalize the United States' neglected infrastructure and to create jobs. His political opponents now sneer at "ObamaRail" and are eager to derail the administration's US$53 billion (348 billion yuan) transportation scheme, even though widespread enthusiasm for these faster modern trains had been anticipated.

High-speed rail has come to mean more than getting from point A to point B. It is a new litmus-test issue that establishes political credibility. Proponents see a way to catch up with state-of-the-art mass transit in Europe and Asia and to cut travel costs for middle-class workers; skeptics tend to scorn high-speed rail enthusiasts for romanticising outmoded, overpriced conveyances that few car-owners or frequent flyers would bother to ride...

Washington's plans for Intercity bullet trains already are getting shot down. By spurning the federal money on offer for public transportation, politicians with libertarian tendencies hope to shore up their Tea Party support. First term Republican governors in three states - Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin- recently turned down billions of dollars in high speed rail (HSR) subsidies, and also lost potential jobs linked to project construction and railway operation.

Fiscal prudence is the reason cited by conservative politicians for rejecting the federal funds for high speed rail corridors. Republican governors Rick Scott, John Kasich, and Scott Walker
justified their move, suggesting it would prevent their states' taxpayers from getting stuck with financial commitments for maintaining the newfangled trains or to cover the extra costs if these technologically advanced projects go over budget.

Some US vested interests - such as regional airlines, or the gasoline industry - may be less than thrilled with the prospect of bullet trains thundering across America at speeds up to 400 kilometres per hour. But even the chairman of China Southern Airlines is impressed with high velocity ground transport, though he worries about its effect on his market shares because bullet trains compete on about 25% of his routes. "High-speed rail has three advantages over air travel," Si Xianmin was quoted as saying in The Economist. "It is more convenient, more punctual and has a better safety record."

Creating jobs for Americans is a priority in today's economy, and libertarian critics worry that privately-owned fast train networks would be foreign-run. They contrast the cost of a mile of high-speed rail in China, roughly $15 million, with the estimated $40 million to $80 million per mile to build it inside the United States. Such concerns did not trouble the original railway barons. Historically, Chinese labor was essential to the American transcontinental railroad. Ninety percent of the workers who blasted tunnels and laid ties over the High Sierras in the nineteenth century were Chinese.

Even though it has been hailed by prominent environmentalist activists as a way to beat highway traffic jams and curb pollution from short-stop air travel, high-speed rail has not yet captivated the imagination of car-loving Americans in sprawling suburbs...

Environmental activists are anxious that high-speed rail in the United States be as "earth friendly" as possible, and have urged planners to commit to sustainable land-use and development patterns. A campaign website run by the Sierra Club, the country's oldest grassroots environmental group, points out further green attributes:

* HSR (high-speed rail) requires one-sixth of the energy per seat-mile of equivalent airline travel and one-third of the energy of automobile travel.
* HSR "recycles" railroad beds that can easily be 100 to 150 years old and thus feature energy-conserving grades.
* HSR stations strongly encourage the redevelopment of pedestrian & transit-friendly office districts.
* Electric HSR draws energy from the national power grid that utilizes otherwise impractical sources of "renewable" or domestic energy.
* Electric HSR transfers most pollution problems to large stationary power plants that offer the best chance for pollution control.
* Electric HSR can regenerate significant amounts of useful electric power as trains decelerate for curves and stations.
* Electric HSR locomotives and power distribution systems have remarkably long lives and low maintenance costs.

If the United States ignores an opportunity to reshape its economic geography with high-speed trains, it's likely to get left behind.

Excerpted from a longer article on www.chinadialogue.net