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Passenger Rail Supporters Say ROI Worth the Costs

May 7, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
An Acela high speed train. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON – President Biden’s advocacy during a speech in Lake Charles, La., for $2.25 trillion in infrastructure spending won support from passenger rail executives who testified in Congress Thursday.

Biden’s plan would set aside $621 billion specifically to rebuild the nation’s roads, bridges, rails and airports.

He spoke with a 70-year-old bridge in the background that is 20 years over its intended lifespan, using it as an example of why infrastructure improvements are needed.

“It makes no sense,” Biden said. “But the truth is, across the country, we have failed to properly invest in infrastructure for half a century.”

About the same time, representatives of state transportation agencies and private companies told a congressional subcommittee that economic growth would follow any money they allocate to building or improving passenger railroads.

“High speed rail stimulates economic development in multiple ways and spreads it to cities and regions left behind, connecting them with major employment centers and all the opportunities that brings,” said Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association.

He testified to the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials as it considers budget proposals to subsidize passenger rail. 

He described benefits that included job creation, greater mobility for a bigger swath of the U.S. population, safety from less highway traffic and reductions in tailpipe emissions.

Kunz said the Chinese economy is positioned to surpass the United States by 2028, in part because of its large investments in railroads.

“The only way we’ll be able to compete is by having the same highly efficient national transportation system underlying our economy,” Kunz said. “As we all know, transportation dictates the entire functioning and cost of running a nation.” 

The rail supporters’ optimistic predictions met with skepticism from some lawmakers and at least one state official.

Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., said the history of big spending on railroads showed additional projects should be approached cautiously.

He mentioned the example of the proposed California high speed rail project that would run between San Francisco and Los Angeles. California voters approved the project in November 2008 for the 200 mph trains that would complete the 380-mile route in two hours and 40 minutes.

The first estimates put the cost at $30 billion. The most recent estimates raised the price to $100 billion.

Other concerns were raised by Trey Duhon, a Waller County, Texas, judge who testified against a planned high-speed rail system linking major Texas cities.

He said the ticket prices needed to help the railroad recover its costs would turn it into a system only for business travelers with big budgets. As a result, the ridership needed to make the system self-supporting never would be achieved.

Instead of relying on ill-advised government subsidies, passenger rail systems should be expanded only if they can operate profitably, Duhon said.

“We say let it live or die in the free market,” he said.

John Porcari, a former deputy U.S. transportation secretary, suggested that Congress set up a trust fund to pay for passenger rail improvements rather than leaving much of the decision to state officials.

“If you’re wondering why we have the unbalanced transportation system we have today, follow the money,” he said.

Most transportation projects are done as joint ventures between the federal and state governments, which normally means local officials prefer roads that are popular with their voters. As a result, railroads that travel long distance and interstate are neglected.

A trust fund dedicated only to railroads would overcome the local interest problem, he said. In addition, “It has local spinoff economic benefits,” Porcari said.

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