April 26, 2011

Off the rails

U.S. federal and state governments should invest in high-speed transit

While riding the Red Line downtown last weekend, I turned on my iPhone and found a few articles on the most recent Celtics-Knicks game, expecting them to help kill the dragging time. After reading five or six articles, I lifted my head and looked out the window. I expected to be at Grand Station already; more than 20 minutes had definitely passed. But I hadn’t even entered the city.

Why is it that the most powerful industrialized country in the world cannot link the South Side of Chicago to downtown in less than 15 minutes? Why is it that in China one can travel from Guangzhou South to Changsha South –a distance of 439 miles – in 2 hours, yet it takes the same amount of time to get from UChicago to Northwestern? Why doesn’t Chicago—and the rest of the US, for that matter— have an integrated high-speed railway system?

The the most obvious reason is cost. Grappling with a significant deficit, citizens are not willing to shell out the money required for investments in these proposals. In addition, unlike Europe and Japan, the United States has, over the last 60 years, invested over $1.4 trillion in an interstate highway system that has made car travel an extremely cheap option. To emphasize the weakness of current American railway plans compared to those abroad, the controversial $787 billion Recovery Act of 2009 set aside $8 billion for the creation of high-speed railway corridors across the United States; China will spend over $300 billion by 2012 on their advanced high-speed rail system.

Another reason we don’t have high-speed rail is because it has been perceived as an idealistic and unattainable proposal in state and federal legislatures. Sure, Mayor Richard Daley recently stated that Chicago must develop high-speed rail, but he also said that it “remains unclear how realistic the plans are, given the high cost of such systems.” It happens again and again. Effective economic solutions in the form of investment in new technologies and creation of novel markets are put on the table, but politicians quickly discard them due to their short-term costs. Politicians and citizens alike must understand we are going to have to swallow the short-term costs of good ideas to reap their long-term benefits.

And the long-term benefits of high-speed rail definitely outweigh the short-term expenses. According to a study conducted by the Federal Railroad Administration in 2009, high-speed rail improves safety and efficiency. In Japan, Tokaido Shinkansen trains have operated without a derailment or collision since the inception of operations in 1964. The study also maintained that “investment in high-speed rail will not only generate high-skilled construction and operating jobs, but can also provide a steady market for revitalized domestic industries producing such essential components as rail, control systems, locomotives, and passenger cars.” Environmental quality and energy efficiency can also be promoted, as the study reported that high-speed rail networks in proposed corridors could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by six billion pounds annually.

If America expects to keep up with its global competition, the issue of mediocre public transportation must be resolved. In general, the development of high-speed rail systems should begin on a citywide or statewide basis before transitioning into a national service, since this would allow for greater flexibility in testing and for more gradual costs that could be more easily swallowed. It’s embarrassing that our transportation is as it is now: Outdated, decrepit, sluggish. Chicago looks backward with its broken transportation system. The city and country should develop a more advanced infrastructure to foster efficiency and competitiveness. If this is accomplished, then maybe we can keep pace with the rest of the world .