The New York Times
An Investment We Have to Make
Robert D. Yaro is the president of Regional Plan Association, a policy, research and advocacy group, and professor of practice in city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania.
Building a national high-speed rail system shouldn’t be a partisan issue. But it’s becoming that way because of the hyper-partisanship in the country and the conviction of many on the right that public investments of this kind are in some way “un-American.”
High-speed rail will expand our economy, just as the Interstate highway system did in the 20th century.
This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Throughout history, our nation’s leaders championed federal investments in infrastructure. Washington led efforts to build canals right after the Revolution, Lincoln led efforts to build the Trans-Continental Railroad during the Civil War, and Eisenhower led efforts to build the Interstate highways during the Cold War. It is altogether appropriate for President Obama to lead efforts to build a national high-speed rail system now.
High-speed rail won’t work everywhere in the country. But it’s perfectly suited to the needs of America’s 11 emerging megaregions, home to 70 percent of Americans. These are densely populated places like the Northeast where metro areas share economic sectors, infrastructure and natural systems.
In most of these places existing highways and airports are severely congested and have little potential for expansion. In California, for example, a high-speed system can be a much more cost-effective way to provide needed mobility, compared with new or expanded highways and runways.
And at 100 to 600 miles across, megaregions are well suited for high-speed rail because they are too large for convenient car travel and too small for efficient air travel. High-speed systems have the potential to expand labor and housing markets and create new agglomerations in cutting edge industries.
For these reasons Japan, China, Taiwan and Europe — and now Brazil, South Africa, Morocco, India and Vietnam — already have or are building high-speed rail. Unless we build similar systems here, we will find ourselves at a growing competitive disadvantage caused by increasing congestion and inefficiency in moving people and goods.
At an estimated $500 billion, a national high-speed rail system won’t come cheap. But it will help enable a major expansion in the U.S. gross domestic product by mid-century, in much the same way the Interstate highways did in the 20th century. Once completed with forms of public financing, these systems can be operated and maintained by the private sector and operated at a profit. We can’t afford not to build a national high-speed system. It’s not the only infrastructure investment needed to secure our economic futures. But it’s one that will be essential to our future mobility and competitiveness.