With the COVID-19 stimulus package behind us, President Joseph R. Biden and his team will soon turn to the next greatest promise of his election campaign: repairing and innovating the crumbling infrastructure of United States transportation system. Part of the $2 trillion dollar infrastructure bill that Biden hopes to pass are funds for repairing and creating high speed railway systems to reduce carbon pollution, ease traffic, and promote economic growth as they have in Seattle and Denver. However, creating high speed passenger rail systems is an expensive endeavor and convincing Republicans and Democrats alike to come together on this arguably risky investment may prove difficult. To pass high speed railway legislation, Biden’s team will have to use strategic problem and policy framing to unify both parties in Congress and the divided citizens of America which they serve.
What would developing a high-speed rail system look like in America?
The United States High Speed Rail Association (USHSR) is a non-profit advocacy organization that works to build public, business, and political support for a major federal investment in high-speed rail. While the Biden Administration has not released any concrete plans for high-speed rail, the USHSR has released a plan for Biden’s term in the presidency to integrate high speed rail into U.S. transportation infrastructure. The development would begin with fast tracking projects already in the works: the $60 billion rail in California, the $20 billion rail in Texas, the $40 billion rail in the Pacific Northwest, the $2.5 billion Florida rail, and finally a $50 billion investment for updating NYC rails. Next, the USHSR suggests the administration turn to assisting second tier projects (mainly cross-state east coast projects) in the planning and development stage: land acquisition, obtaining permits, and impact evaluations. In the end, the USHSR proposes 17,000 miles of high speed railways connecting America’s biggest metropolitan areas.
What are the benefits to society and the environment?
A high-speed rail system will have several environmental, social, and economic benefits for American citizens. It is estimated that every 1 billion dollars invested in high-speed rail could create 24,000 jobs; every $1 invested will produce $4 of benefit in economic activity; high speed rail will reduce U.S. dependence on imported foreign oil and allow the economy to retain billions of dollars; and reduced traffic congestion will save the U.S. $140 billion in lost time and productivity. Environmental benefits include improved air quality, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, improved energy efficiency, and reduced dependence on foreign oil. The true environmental impacts can only be guessed; however, we can take examples from abroad such as China where comprehensive impact modeling of high-speed rail found the substitution effect of rail to reduce CO2 by 35.52 thousand tons.
How can Biden best secure funds and support for the project?
It is vital that a bill for railway development be passed as bipartisan as possible due to the longevity of the projects; if a Republican administration is elected in the coming presidential cycles it would not serve to have half-finished infrastructure projects be cut off from federal funding. A smaller scale example of this happening in California state legislature right now illustrates the seriousness of the threat: newly elected orange county Republicans are attempting to block federal funding for the ongoing orange county rail project.
Convincing both the public and Congress that a cross-country high-speed rail system is worth the investment of taxpayer dollars will be a complicated endeavor. As a Democrat introduced policy, any high-speed rail bill is likely to receive some push back from Republicans as there has been in California legislature for reasons surrounding costs, slow progress, and harm to local businesses. Since the 117th Congress has very narrow partisan majorities for Democrats with the House split 221-211 and the Senate split 50-50, the Biden Administration will have to be strategic at problem and policy framing in order to pass railway infrastructure legislation. Republicans are typically more concerned with economic development, so it would benefit Democrats to frame the issue of rail system development in terms of its economic and societal benefits, and abandon the more controversial environmental rhetoric entirely. Biden has already strayed down the path of making high-speed rail an issue of climate change in his public comments, so reversing this image will require targeted messaging.
Part of convincing Congress to agree on railway legislation is convincing their constituents that it is a worthwhile investment for their tax dollars. Members of Congress are politically motivated to please their constituency for re-election purposes. It may prove difficult to secure support from members of Congress and citizens from states that are not going to benefit from high-speed railway development for many years or at all, mainly more remote parts of the Northwest and Midwest. Thought will have to be put into showing these fringe states how high-speed railways will benefit them in the long run. The Biden administration will also have to be very thorough when conducting impact evaluations on the lands they plan to develop railways to show the public and concerned parties that their businesses and lands will not be harmed. Introducing new leadership such as a department dedicated to high-speed rail may serve Biden in this regard. Finally, consideration for historical lands of value or native people’s as well as concerns of noise pollution and other impacts of physical space will have to be well documented, likely by the Environmental Protection Agency to avoid costly and timely lawsuits and allow sustainable implementation.
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