The United States is a first world nation with a third world rail system

When my son was little and I took him on his first train trip, he asked me, “Daddy, what does Amtrak stand for?” I paused for a while, then hit back, “A miserable train adventure, kid.”

My sarcastic answer aside, anyone who has traveled on a high speed train (LGV) in Japan, France or China cannot help but feel embarrassed by the US passenger rail system. Even Uzbekistan, which isn’t exactly one of the most advanced economies in the world, has a high-speed rail line that has reduced train trips between Tashkent, the capital, and Bukhara, the country’s fifth largest city. , from seven to a little over three. In comparison closer to home, the train trip between Washington, DC, and Charlotte, NC, is an 8 hour trip on Amtrak. The Paris-Bordeaux high-speed rail line – the same equivalent distance – only takes of them hours.

So why hasn’t the United States developed and implemented a high-speed rail system, as many developed and developing countries have? As Yonah Freemark, Senior Associate Researcher at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC, argues: “American society has proven incapable of pooling the sustained motivation or resources required to complete a single large intercity rail project. high speed.

The increased politicization and partisanship surrounding the transport issue, with interest groups and lobbies still vying, has contributed to a perpetual blockage with little hope of resolution at the national level. It is true that the success of our interstate highway system, which began under Eisenhower’s presidency, combined with the increased accessibility of automobiles and air transport are major factors that have hampered a large rail system. speed in the United States. But the diagnosis is not a prescription.

As California State Treasurer Fiona Ma asserted in a letter to chairpersons and senior members of Senate and House committees on transportation and infrastructure, high-speed rail would improve the quality of transportation. life in our neighborhoods and protect the environment for future generations. She is keen to stress that “both public and private systems have a role to play in laying the groundwork that will come together to form a true national network in the United States.”

While a nationwide fully privatized bullet train system is a libertarian fantasy, a fully public system is a progressive pipe dream. Just look at Amtrak. It is funded by the federal government and operates like a state-owned enterprise, which means that it is a for-profit enterprise in which the federal government owns all of its preferred shares. Since its trains started running in 1971, Amtrak has yet to make a profit. In essence, it’s the US Postal Service on Wheels, with a motto that should be, “Although our trains are poorly maintained, we run late, our tickets are expensive, and customer service is non-existent, at least we are charging. deficits. Still, he’s asking Congress for $ 75 billion (meanwhile, the infrastructure bill only has $ 80 billion for rail), and none of that is planned for the TGV..

The TGV can work well if the private sector is given the green light to take the initiative. This is evidenced by the case of Brightline, a private, built and operated rail line that runs on existing transit corridors between Miami and West Palm Beach, Florida. Having raised $ 5 billion in private investment, Brightline is expanding its destinations in Florida and developing a high-speed high-speed train line from California to Nevada. The following phases will connect West Palm Beach to Orlando International Airport and Orlando to Tampa.

Brightline focuses on “too long to drive and too short to fly” travel lanes, where the introduction of passenger rail presents a clear value proposition for the consumer. Additionally, Brightline uses existing infrastructure corridors and alignments to leverage past investments, reduce environmental impacts, reduce costs, accelerate execution and establish a basis for profitability. In essence, Brightline integrates with other systems to create a diverse and convenient multimodal network.

If the United States is to have a high-speed train system, there are three ways Congress can pull private capital out of the sidelines and get in the game. The first is to increase opportunities for public-private collaboration. . Currently, federal rail subsidies are limited to government projects. By extending it to the private sector, it would leverage block funding and harness project management expertise on time and on budget. Second, the federal government should remove prohibitive cost conditions from federal rail funding. The current loan mechanism (RRIF) is far too expensive for applicants. Third, Congress should increase the availability of private activity bonds, tax-exempt instruments that allow privately funded projects to borrow at rates similar to traditional projects.

The United States needs the TGV. Through public-private cooperation and with the right funding models, the United States can join the ranks of Japan, China, Spain, and other countries that effectively meet the transportation needs of their citizens and private companies.

Jerry Haar is Professor of Commerce at Florida International University and a Global Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. He is also a member of the Council on Competitiveness’s Labor and Entrepreneurship Working Group.

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