Last month the nation learned that 31 states will receive one-time high-speed rail stimulus grants totaling $8 billion.
But what happens next?
The last time our country sought to achieve a national infrastructure vision was in the 1950s. Roadways between cities at the time were haphazard and largely mud or gravel. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had seen the future in the German autobahn and set out to construct a national network of limited-access highways connecting major American cities. It took over three decades of sustained investment to complete that vision. The result was "the greatest public works project in history," according to the Federal Highway Administration.
Constructing high-speed rail will take no less of a commitment.
In a new report released today, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group is calling for another great public works project - one that will connect, by high-speed bullet trains, all of America's major cities which are between 100 to 500 miles from each other.
A high-speed rail network that competes with intercity commuter air travel would have huge benefits for our economic, energy, and environmental problems. It will create up to 1.6 million construction jobs, provide thousands with jobs related to the new lines, cut our energy consumption, improve travel and assist in the resurgence of American manufacturing. Replacing short-haul airplane flights will also free up precious air space at our crowded airports, and let airlines concentrate on the cross-country trips where they make sense.
The first step in building the network is to set a national goal with an ambitious time frame, just like we did for the Interstate Highway System or getting to the moon. We can link all our major cities by 2050, if we set our minds to it.
Ten other principles should guide state, national and local leaders as they roll up their sleeves to get the job done:
- Invest enough to succeed - America must reverse the half-century-long trend of underinvestment in passenger rail by creating a reliable funding source and channeling the necessary resources.
- Maximize "bang for the buck" by investing in lines with the greatest ridership potential and using incremental, short-term improvements in passenger rail to help lay the groundwork for eventual faster high-speed service.
- Balance private investment with public safeguards - Harnessing private investment can help to deliver high-speed rail improvements, but only if the public retains control over planning and key decisions, and only if private deals operate with their books fully open to the public. Wherever possible, new rail lines should be built on publicly owned right of way.
- Invest to achieve full benefits by refusing to cut corners in new rail investments, particularly with regard to investments that can improve energy security, environmental performance, and safety.
- Build stations in the right places, where passengers have access to local public transit networks for completing their trip and where passenger rail can provide a catalyst for transit-oriented development.
- Assure transparency in all aspects of the decision-making process over passenger rail, including the expenditure of funds and contracting.
- Manage for performance by collecting and publicizing data on ridership, energy consumption, safety and other aspects of rail service, and setting concrete goals for achieving specific targets in each of these areas.
- Encourage domestic manufacturing to supply the equipment needed for the build-out of the nation's passenger rail system and make America a leader.
- Set standards for high-speed rail equipment so that the nation can benefit from economies of scale. Integrated networks need standards.
- Encourage cooperation among states, and between states and the federal government.
We know that Americans will increasingly use high-speed rail to commute between cities, if it exists. But we won't get there if Congress treats these stimulus grants as the final destination rather than the first leg of the journey.
We can't let that happen. We need a new, great public works project that is in the public interest. We need to make sure high-speed rail is not left at the station.
Follow Phineas Baxandall on Twitter: www.twitter.com/uspirg