High-speed Rail Program Integral to Energy Overhaul

Pres. Barack Obama has proposed a national high-speed rail program that would develop eight to ten regions for high-speed rail (currently, only the so-called northeast corridor, running from Washington, DC, to Boston, through Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, has a regular high-speed service), as part of a phased-in long-term economic recovery plan. The rail project comes into play also as part of Obama’s plans for a comprehensive energy-sector overhaul, aimed at reducing carbon emissions.

The high-speed rail project is perhaps one of the least adequately reported components of both economic recovery and energy infrastructure overhaul plans, but one of the most vital and thoughtful. A successful implementation of 10 high-speed rail “regions”, in the most densely populated areas of the country, would provide a platform for major innovations in transport and energy sourcing.

A rail service, by nature, allows for the use of a wide variety of power-sourcing, and could provide the most immediate opportunity for making the shift to clean energy resources. An electric rail system would permit any new electricity sourcing strategy to be linked into the railway infrastructure, as soon as it is ready and operational.

This could put millions of passengers in a clean-energy transport system within just a few years’ time. But rail infrastructure is also vital to getting automobiles off the road. The current standard for automobile production is carbon-intensive and greenhouse heavy. Reliance on carbon-based fuels, especially petroleum-based gasoline and diesel, means the average automobile, be it car, bus or tractor-trailer, is constantly emitting carbon dioxide (CO2) and contributing to global climate destabilization.

There are “green shoots” in the energy economy, the beginnings of a new spring of innovation, namely the California-based all-electric car company Tesla Motors, the worldwide network of battery switch-out stations being developed by Shai Agassi’s Better Place, and the amazing Swiss-based Solar Impulse, a company which has developed the world’s first 100% solar-powered airplane. The development of zero-combustion energy technologies promises to revolutionize the future of energy production and of transport.

Ideally, most people will not have to make much of a change in the way they get around; they will just use the new technologies and infrastructure made available to them by visionary enterprises and responsible governments. But intelligent planning for how to implement each new advance as it comes to be operational, like a national high-speed rail system, is vital to keeping the innovation coming, wave after wave.

They say the railroads made Chicago the city that it is, and with Obama and his chief of staff, and various other top advisers, coming from Chicago, maybe this White House knows the history and is particularly well-positioned to understand the role of rail in the dawning of a new transport era. It is also true that Obama’s campaign for the presidency was more advanced than any before it at gathering information from the grass-roots, rewarding supporters (with a rating system) for contributing blog posts, creating discussions, or spreading new ideas.

Whatever the case, Obama came to office with a powerful commitment to the idea that infrastructure in America needed investment: 1) just to get up to code and 2) to prevent a dangerous energy-sourcing lag as the nation rallies to combat climate destabilization. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. ARRA / “stimulus package” / “recovery plan”) devotes $8 billion to high-speed rail, “a sum that far surpasses anything before attempted in the United States”, according to Politico. Obama’s plan will devote another $1 billion to high-speed rail in each of the next 5 years.

Some believe much more is in fact needed. Much of the underlying infrastructure cost could come from other areas of the recovery strategy or federal public works funding. Over $2 trillion is needed just to address lack of adequate maintenance in existing infrastructure. Obama’s plan aims to achieve both maintenance and major upgrades with the same funding, with careful planning and an eye to the new energy economy. Absolutely key to the effectiveness of current plans for energy innovation is understanding the role of rail transport in effecting that change.

With enough development of wind and solar technologies, the high-speed rail system could be powered through clean energy within just a few years, certainly by the end of a 2nd Obama term, if there is one. Pricing models and efforts to help back up Amtrak’s budget could make the service affordable to millions more people, accelerating the shift from carbon fuels to clean electric, and taking the pressure off private industry to cut emissions.

The Northern New England, Empire, and Keystone high-speed rail regions will expand the reach of the Northeast Corridor high-speed lines. The Southeast, Florida, Gulf Coast and South Central high-speed rail regions will deliver ultra-modern potentially clean-energy transport to the deep south. The Chicago Hub Network will reach out from Chicago to a total of between 7 and 9 states in the region.

Out west, the California and Pacific Northwest regions aim to increase mobility along the Pacific coast, providing better transport links between major cities and the industry-diverse work environments concentrated in the LA, Bay area Silicon Valley or Seattle regions. There are reports the funding will be concentrated in the midwest and far west, where infrastructure spending shortfalls could block the project altogether and where, unlike the northeast, there is no existing service.

In a tremendous and welcome boost to the high-speed rail plans, the House of Representatives provided $4 billion in new funding for the project, in its recently passed transportation spending bill. That’s $4 billion in addition to the $8 billion from the ARRA, instead of the $1 billion requested by Obama. The bill’s expanded funding shows Congress sees the value of such infrastructure investment and could be expected to implement bold energy-sourcing innovations for the rail system, if legislation can be used to do this, speeding the green revolution.

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Originally published July 21, 2009, at CafeSentido.com

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