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High-speed rail plans should appeal even to staunch critics | Opinion

Faster trains — which get you to New York in 37 minutes — can transform our economy and climate.

A full-scale mock-up of a high-speed train is displayed at the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif.
A full-scale mock-up of a high-speed train is displayed at the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif.Read moreRich Pedroncelli / AP

Last Thursday, President Joe Biden announced a bipartisan agreement on a $1.2 trillion infrastructure framework, which allocates $66 billion to passenger and freight rails. This follows his April announcement when he stood at the iconic 30th Street Station in Philadelphia with Amtrak president William Flynn to promote his massive infrastructure plan.

President Biden has made building high-speed rail lines a priority, which is a good thing: The U.S. has fallen far behind the rest of the world when it comes to building high-speed rail, which can create good-paying jobs and support our nation’s economic development in a sustainable, equitable manner.

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The U.S. was once a pioneer in building an extensive rail transportation system, from sea to shining sea. But for the last 100 years, the U.S. has practically abandoned what the rest of the modern world has advanced into a safe and efficient high-speed rail network, with trains traveling 200 miles per hour. China has created the world’s largest network by far, with tens of thousands of kilometers of high-speed rail already in operation and more under construction. According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, the U.S. has fallen to 22nd in the world on high-speed rail, far behind many countries in Europe and Asia.

For his plan for high-speed rail to succeed, Biden must bring competing industries — including the automobile industry — together and work to unravel the ongoing resistance to high-speed rail.

According to a 2012 paper by the American Public Transit Association, since World War II, critics have mounted a “well-oiled campaign” against the expansion of passenger rail in favor of a national highway system, a campaign which continues to this day.

But our country needs high-speed rail: The phenomenal growth of China’s economy can be partially tied to its high-speed rail lines, which now connect remote areas across the country. The benefits of China’s high-speed rail include tourism, shortened travel times, and better mobility for the nation’s labor force, as well as less highway congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. Just imagine being able to travel from Philly to New York City in 37 minutes.

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According to Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the US High Speed Rail Association, for trips under three or four hours in length, most people will opt for high-speed rail over flying.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has said he wants the U.S. to become a world leader in high-speed rail, and Biden’s American Jobs Plan outlines $80 billion for Amtrak to repair and update what they have and invest in connecting new pairs of cities. While that may sound like a lot, the investment in the original 66,000 kilometers (41,000 miles) of interstate highways would be roughly equivalent to $235 billion in 2017.

To establish the scope of a true high-speed rail vision for America, the Biden administration should establish a task force with a cross section of experts from industry, academia, Amtrak, and the auto industry. These might seem like unlikely bedfellows, but the U.S. needs the auto industry’s help to provide the necessary trains and infrastructure.

“High-speed rail can actually benefit auto companies if they turn a portion of their production to trains and other components that the new infrastructure will need.”

Mysore Nagaraja, Howard Sackel, and Bob Previdi

And high-speed rail can actually benefit auto companies if they turn a portion of their production to trains and other components that the new infrastructure will need. Oil companies and energy suppliers may get on board when they see they can profit from building power plants to generate energy for trains and charging stations for private cars. High-speed rail doesn’t have to put them out of business.

This task force should report to the secretary of transportation and would develop the vision into a plan that encourages innovative financing and construction, such as public-private partnerships. The places to start the program should be the obvious busy ones: The upgrade of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the full implementation of California’s High-Speed Rail program, the Texas “T,” and the Midwest Regional Rail System branching out from Chicago.

High-speed rail can enhance the nation’s mobility and ease congestion on our roads and skies. Building rail, however, must not be viewed as a threat to the automobile-based industries or they will resist. There needs to be something in its development for the automobile interests, too. Only then can we have buy-in from all industrial suppliers and allow high-speed rail to broaden travel options, making our entire economy work more effectively and efficiently for everyone.

Mysore Nagaraja is the former president of MTA Capital Construction. Howard Sackel is a transportation consultant and former director at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Bob Previdi is a former spokesman for City Council President Anna Verna and worked for NYC Transit for 14 years.