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New Report: Next Stop: California

Liberals often complain when they perceive conservatives invoking “American exceptionalism” – the belief that America is fundamentally different from (and better than) all other nations on earth. In transportation circles, however, American exceptionalism is far from the triumphant creed that it is, say, in economic or military affairs. 

Proponents of car-centered transportation policies often see the same problems with our current transportation system – congestion, accidents, the high cost of motoring – as opponents do. Where American exceptionalism kicks in, however, is in the notion that America’s transportation needs are so different from those of other nations that there is virtually nothing we can learn from their experiences that might apply here. They may love their bikes in Amsterdam, dig their trams in Prague, or pack the subways in Tokyo, but there’s no way those approaches could work in America because … well, we’re America.

All of which leads me to our latest report, Next Stop: California: The Benefits of High-Speed Rail Around the World and What’s in Store for California. The report takes a detailed look at the actual experiences of nations around the world that have built high-speed rail lines and gleans lessons the Golden State can learn from those experiences.

With the possible exception of Florida, California is the state that is furthest along the path toward construction of a true high-speed rail system. In 2008, voters provided seed money for the program through a ballot initiative and the Obama administration followed through with an investment of federal stimulus cash earlier this year. Routes, stations, and a phasing plan for construction have already been chosen. And while there is much work yet to be done – and many hurdles (including the state’s dire fiscal situation) standing in the way – California is as committed as any state to realizing the vision of high-speed rail.
The key take-away message from our report is that high-speed rail is a powerful tool that does a few things exceedingly well, and that much of the “success” or “failure” of high-speed rail depends on the decisions that public officials and system planners make about the location of routes and stations and the integration of high-speed rail into broader plans for transportation, land use and economic development. 

One of the things high-speed rail does very well is getting people out of airplanes. Efficient, frequent, reasonably priced high-speed rail service between cities 2 to 3 hours apart has, always and everywhere, provided effective competition for air travel. It’s happened in Spain, in France, in Japan, and in Germany. For a state like California that suffers from airport congestion and delays, and in which a large share of daily flights serve in-state markets, high-speed rail can provide a viable alternative to endless rounds of airport expansion and increasingly clogged skies.

Another benefit of high-speed rail is its success in reducing oil consumption (and, in many places, emissions of global warming pollutants). With the Gulf oil spill lending a new sense of urgency to America’s efforts to get off oil, and with the long-term imperatives of shrinking oil supplies and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions likely to become even more urgent in the years to come, electrified high-speed rail , which can potentially be powered by renewable sources of energy, represents an important investment for the future.

Finally, high-speed rail has proven effective at directing and concentrating new development near rail stations. Our report highlights the example of Great Britain, where new high-speed rail service is being used as a tool for the redevelopment of a languishing neighborhood in London, a springboard for the development of new sustainable communities on the city’s outskirts, and as an attractive option for suburban commuters – not to mention the critical role it is expected to play in transportation for the city’s 2012 Olympic games.

Of course, another reality about high-speed rail is that it is not cheap – California’s system is expected to cost more than $40 billion when all is said and done. In rare cases – such as the original Shinkansen line in Japan and the first TGV line in France – high-speed rail investments have paid themselves off over time. In most other cases, though, fares cover the ongoing cost of operating the system (and even generate an operating profit) but not the original cost of construction. High-speed rail will clearly be a major investment for California – as it has been for other nations that have undertaken it – but it also creates a necessary short-term economic boost (in the form of thousands of construction jobs), reduces the need for other costly transportation investments (such as expanded highways and airports), and may, according to at least some economic analyses, spark broader economic impacts that will redound to California’s benefit for decades to come.

High-speed rail is no panacea, but it is a powerful tool that has been used to positive effect elsewhere in the world – as evidenced by the continued push to add new high-speed rail lines in countries from Spain to China. For California, which faces horrendous transportation problems and the need to find more sustainable ways to accommodate a growing population, high-speed rail looks like a good bet.