by Robert Cruickshank
Although some still seem to believe that the recession and state budget problems make HSR undesirable, that view isn't held by some of the most important figures - Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood (who at least in his public statements has turned out to be WAY better than I ever imagined) and the companies that would build and operate high speed rail in the US. The recession is bad, is likely to persist for some time, and runs a very real risk of taking another downward lurch. But as this Reuters article makes clear, there is still demand and capacity out there to build HSR:
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, speaking to policy experts and reporters, said rail would be a strong opportunity for outside participation with the Obama administration taking early steps financially and politically to advance new train corridors to compete with short-haul air and highway travel.
"Companies involved in (overseas) high speed rail are in the U.S. right now," LaHood said, noting that several states are vying for a piece of an $8 billion downpayment in federal rail funding from February's economic stimulus package.
"I think you'll see private investment in high speed rail -- from Europe and Asia, not just the U.S.," he said.
LaHood also said broadband expansion would be a good bet for private interests but was less optimistic about attracting near-term investment from outside government in U.S. road projects due to recession.
This is quite significant - not only because it suggests that HSR demand is robust, but that there is more interest in funding it than in funding roads. The fact that Ray LaHood is picking up on this suggests that the Obama Administration is aware of this and might be willing to plan its transportation priorities accordingly (although first they'll need to resolve the battle over the Transportation Bill, subject of tomorrow's post).
LaHood is joined by industry leaders such as Alstom and SNCF in this assessment:
Hitachi and Kawasaki Heavy Industries are leading train manufacturers.
Leading global players also include Canada's Bombardier, Germany's Siemens and France's Alstom....
Alstom's U.S. president, Pierre Gauthier, told Reuters in an interview the company concentrates on providing trains and signal systems but would not preclude other forms of investment in U.S. rail if a market develops.
"When you have this and good service, I think Europe has shown that people use this a lot," Gauthier said.
One of the key questions being asked right now as we look at the wreckage of the global economy is what will drive growth that can get us out of this crisis? Mass transit, including high speed rail, is obviously part of the answer. Neither California nor the US can afford to fall behind yet again. We wasted the prosperity of the 1980s and 1990s on more freeways and kicked high speed rail down the road. Now that we are in an economic crisis brought on partly by that failure to embrace sustainable transportation, we would be fools to miss a chance to use HSR to both rebuild our economy and put it on a much more sustainable and prosperous long-term footing.