Archives For high speed rail

State of the UnionThere are times when sustainability takes the back seat in political address, earning only brief glimpses amidst purportedly grander plans for our country’s direction. Tonight was no such occasion. President Obama made sustainability a fixture in his State of the Union address to the country, touching on numerous points as priorities for how we should utilize sustainable goals to strengthen the economy and improve our quality of life. Though some of the mentioned goals were admittedly very tenacious, it is encouraging to see that the White House is willing to put sustainability center stage. Continue Reading…

cutting dollar billAt the beginning of the recession there were many forecasters that foretold a dark future for sustainability after years of increased spending on numerous fronts. The result was quite the opposite, largely due to the amount of stimulus spending that guided money back into sustainable endeavors like renewable energy, home efficiency upgrades and high speed rail. However, now that the spigot has been closed on the unsustainable flow of stimulus dollars and sights are being set on spending cuts, the day of reckoning, though delayed, may finally be approaching for a number of industries. While some sustainable goals may still find success in a marketplace with shallower pockets (notably those that center around saving money) it is likely the most well known items that may suffer the most, challenging the level of frontage and recognition by the average American that greener goals have enjoyed. Continue Reading…

Our country’s effort to support renewable energy is still in its early stages of development and ripe for adjustment. The maturing of the renewable industry can positively affect job growth, technological innovation and increased efficiency, but there are a number of ways we can be doing those things, even within the umbrella of sustainability (smart grids, alternative transit infrastructure, electric cars, building systems,etc.) The real goal of governmental support for renewables should be getting more clean megawatts attached to the grid.  If that is the goal, then we should be retooling our system of incentives to make that goal a reality rather than dilute its effectiveness due to a lack of focus.

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On his trip to Florida, President Obama revealed his list of recipients for the High Speed Rail funding portion of the federal stimulus package. Reportedly, the $8 billion pot will be split amongst projects and planning in 31 different states to promote faster, more efficient transit across the U.S. There are numerous parts of our country’s railroad network that the Department of Transportation has designated as potential high speed rail corridor and most of them would benefit from developing such a revolutionary system. On the other hand, not all track beds are alike when the available funds are supposed to promote jobs, provide perceived benefit and comprise a mere fraction of the funding ultimately needed to institute HSR on a national scale.

Existing High Speed Rail RoutesPoliticians can think of few better ways to win public support than giving out free money. Coming the night after the State of the Union, this was a perfect time to publicly dole out the public’s own cash. It is not surprising that the administration would want to make as many constituencies feel better as possible, but sometimes endeavors (such as vast, highly technological, infrastructural upgrades) need a certain degree of critical mass. Otherwise, the result can be a watered down series of half-finished, under-funded tasks that only leaves people frustrated.

In this case, the choice of how to allocate funding for projects of this magnitude are (or at least should be) rather difficult; determined by a number of different factors. Still mired in a lethargic pace of recovery, the economy is searching for job opportunities and the President is pitching this distribution as the road to job creation. This means that projects that are closer to “shovel ready,” the better.

Building new HSR systems is extremely expensive, second only to subways when considering the realm of alternative transit. An estimated example can be drawn from the proposed California line from Los Angeles to San Francisco has estimated costs upwards of $45 billion that would translate into $130 million per track mile. The distance that needs to be covered becomes important quickly. Given that this quick boost of funding is not going to bring any project from start to finish, someone should also be weighing the likelihood that state governments will have to means to complete the projects themselves. Naturally, California is a standout, seeking to create a $45 billion transit system while their government is bankrupt.

High Speed Rail StimulusIn order to have a chance at operating at higher capacities (and efficiencies), these trains should also be connecting cities that not only have considerable populations, but have mature transit systems of their own, realizing that HSR is only a piece of the ecology of alternative transit. It could be anti-climactic  to travel 400 miles in two hours only to take another hour to travel 40 blocks.

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Alternative Transit DiagramThe stimulus package has helped to renew consideration for updating our national rail system to include high speed trains, devoting $8 billion to funding new projects across the country. The desire for breaking into new territory is clearly there. Forty states have reportedly submitted $103 billion in requests for high speed rail funding (that is over 12 times the available pot.) However, unless we are complimenting these faster means of travel with smaller, more localized improvements to the network of alternative transit these dollars may be paying for a system with limited levels of efficiency.

These sleek trains that can travel in excess of 200 miles per hour are one of the more enticing visions of efficiency in bolstering alternative transportation in the country and limiting car and plane travel. Glances to European and Asian models give tantalizing possibilities of quicker commutes like traveling from San Francisco to Los Angeles in under three hours. Conventional wisdom pegs trains as far more fuel efficient than the energy required to fly a plane and within a radius of 600 miles, the train can actually be more convenient and faster when you factor in the arduous process of air travel (baggage, security, boarding, taxiing, deplaning.)

I am a complete supporter of high speed trains, but too many people are beginning to see them as the silver “bullet” for our travel woes and if they are not running between cities that have continued to build a network of alternative transit, their usefulness will be capped and keep us from the success that other countries have found.

Alternative transportation is an ecosystem of its own, encompassing every scale of travel from door to door. High speed rail is at the largest scale, great for covering large distances with as few stops as possible and performing well on a scale of transportation efficiency, but no matter what they are only part of the journey. Getting to and from the station in a sensible way is part of what makes the concept viable and attractive. Smaller, more localized systems must be installed to facilitate local access to high speed travel. Spending the money to connect cities without this infrastructure is jumping the gun.

Regional or commuter train lines offer the first level of integration of alternative transit, giving more people easy and cost-effective access to prime transport nodes of major cities. Unlike their high-speed brethren, these trains can make more local stops while still easily trumping the time and energy required of car travel. From there, local lines can take the form of subways, light rail or street cars that give easy maneuverability in urban settings and exponentially increase the amount of accessible destinations. Still further are bus and bike infrastructure that provide an efficient way for short, local trips while remaining efficient in both energy and space.

A true system that utilizes all of these components would drastically decrease the need, and convenience, of traveling by car—which is part of the idea. The more convenience that the system can sell, the more passengers will change their travel habits, allowing the cost of the service to drop, perpetuating the cycle.

Not transit programmed?

Our problem in America is that our cities (and perhaps more importantly, our suburbs) are not designed to accept these systems. The last half-century has been spent crafting our environment around car travel, making it no surprise that many people feel reluctant to consider alternatives. Most of our cities do not have these integrated systems, or even pieces of them, and remain slaves to roads, highways and viaducts. This is why some experts assert that, as of now, the Northeast is the only truly viable site for high speed rail where cities that have matured transit infrastructure can benefit. Having a high speed train stop in Los Angeles makes far less sense than one stopping in New York City.

Although I am a proponent for getting people to change, at a certain point the request becomes unreasonable if the extra effort is less convenient with no time saving and a higher cost. Critics of new rail systems point to existing infrastructure like Amtrak and its failed attempt to remain a profitable source of travel. The costs in construction and maintenance of railroads are extremely high and in a recession no one wants to sign onto a plan that will create black holes of tax dollars.

Their complaints are not entirely unfounded. Amtrak has yet to succeed in convincing enough people ride to keep the prices noticeably low, but what can we expect? As a country we have not succeeded in building our communities around alternative transport—we have not really tried. But if we are going to try then it has to be a holistic effort. That being said, the situation is improving. Amtrak has seen increasing record ridership for the past 6 years and running. The progress can be compliment by our cities, towns and suburbs being re-conceived with less deference given to automobiles. Picking the regions to receive funding for high speed projects could hinge on whether local municipalities can do parallel efforts to promote transit-oriented development on a local scale to increase the health of the entire network.

I am reminded of conservationist Willie Smits and his rebuilding of rain forests. As he explains, there is more to the forest than just the trees—an entire system at different heights, sizes and light levels that is mutually and intricately co-dependent. True rehabilitation efforts must address them all and alternative transit is no different.