High Speed Rail and Social Equity

by Marc Brenman

High speed rail (HSR) is touted by the Obama Administration and has become popular among some constituencies in the United States, including rail enthusiasts, environmentalists, and those enamored of Europe’s and Japan’s rail system. Its supporters claim that HSR has many advantages over cars and claim to reduce car travel. However, in The City Project’s view, there are many uncertainties about HSR.

How much will it cost? In California, official estimates from the California HSR Project are around $35 billion. But traditionally, cost estimates for mega-projects run 40 to 200 percent low. Where will the money come from? In California, it will come from $9 billion from bonds, and much of the rest from the federal government. But there is no new transportation money available from the federal government, so the money will come from other transportation projects, including projects where the need is great, such as bus service in low income areas. The opportunity cost is large. Various studies by transportation experts have shown that the financial risks for HSR in California are great.

What will the environmental benefits be? This isn’t certain, since most of the electricity to run HSR will come from coal-fired plants which simply displaces the source of pollution from the place of use to the place of generation. And, the coal-fired plants are largely located near low income communities. The manufacturing of parts and rolling stock for HSR will be highly polluting too, since the rails are placed on concrete ties the manufacturing of which is one of the most greenhouse gas producing manufacturing processes. Moreover, the “green jobs” that were supposed to have been generated have not materialized for a variety of HSR projects.

How much travel time will HSR save? At the moment, it appears that HSR will be a little faster than regional jet travel. But once security is introduced to train stations, as exists in airports, as Michael Scott Moore, a European high speed rail expert has noted in Miller-McCune Magazine, the time savings will fall to little or nothing. Proponents claim HSR will cut car traffic between cities substantially. But in Spain, car traffic was cut only 5% by the newest HSR system in Europe, and in the rest of Europe, over 70% of intercity trips are still accomplished by private automobile.

Claims that HSR will compete with regional jet are also questionable. Although the California HSR Project estimates that fares will be around 50 to 75% of regional jet fares, it is more likely that the fare will be about the same based on studies by the authors of “The Financial Risks of California’s Proposed High-Speed Rail Project,” a prestigious group of financial experts and engineers.

Who will use HSR? Since the fares will be about the same as regional jet, probably the same people who use regional jet, that is to say, a largely Anglo, middle and upper income customer base. Low income people and many people of color likely won’t be able to afford the fares.

Won’t HSR produce lots of jobs? During construction, HSR will produce a fair number of jobs for members of operating engineers unions whose members are almost entirely Anglo, male, and middle class. Since the federal regulations currently applicable to transportation infrastructure construction prohibit local hiring preferences, it is unlikely that there will be many jobs for low income people and people of color.

But won’t manufacturing the parts for HSR produce lots of good jobs in the U.S.? This is not certain. As of now, there are no manufacturers of railroad rolling stock in the U.S.. There is only one manufacturer of locomotives, and it doesn’t produce HSR engines. The ties will most likely be manufactured in South Korea or Scandinavia, since high tensile steel is required, and it isn’t made in the U.S.. The copper for the overhead electrical wire will probably come from Australia and Canada. The one item that will be made in the U.S. will be the concrete ties, which, as noted above, are highly polluting in their manufacture. There have already been complaints about the lack of contracting opportunities in HSR-related manufacturing and other tasks for minority owned businesses. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights has filed such a complaint against CAHSRP in this regard. If building HSR will create so many jobs in the U.S., why are foreign companies so enthusiastically supporting HSR in the U.S.? The answer is that they expect to receive large contracts.

Other questions about HSR include whether HSR can be run efficiently in the U.S.. Major public transit systems such as METRO in the Washington, D.C., area are struggling financially. AMTRAK is known for its breakdowns.

Another concern relates to rights of way or where the HSR will go. HSR will take new land. Because of the speeds it travels, HSR cannot go on existing railroad rights of way. Traditionally, new transportation rights of way go where the land is cheap often where low income people and people of color live resulting in the taking of their land and homes as happened with the construction of the interstate freeway system. Since HSR rights of way will likely run next to low income communities, it will create new physical barriers to integration. And, in Southern California, some of the proposed routes run through or next to exiting parks and Native American lands.

No HSR project in the U.S. has done the social equity impact analysis required by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Environmental Justice Executive Order, as supported by the finding in 2010 by the Federal Transit Administration and the United States Department of Transportation in the Urban Habitat v. Bay Area Rapid Transit administrative complaint, before starting the planning and construction process. Some claim that these issues are covered in environmental impact statements, but they are not. Environmental legal obligations themselves do not directly prevent civil rights violations.

In sum, the City Project views HSR as a subsidized long distance commuting program for Anglo middle and upper income people. Like the Golden Gate ferries, in the form HSR is currently proposed, it will provide a heavy subsidy to those who don’t need it and require people in California and the rest of the United States to pay for the long term indebtedness it creates.

Some opposition to HSR sometimes comes from places that liberals and progressives are uncomfortable with. These include some Republican governors, Republicans in Congress who don’t want to increase the debt burden of the United States, and libertarians. Some members of the Tea Party have referred to HSR as “trains to nowhere.” Strange as it may seem, opposition to HSR might actually present some opportunities for bridge-building across ideological lines which be might helpful to getting good legislation through Congress in general, since currently it is impossible to pass federal legislation without bipartisan support.

On other side, support for HSR has already created strange bedfellows, notably environmentalists and the business sector. However, business is not willing to pony up the money to build HSR—but rather, wants the taxpayers to pay for it. The City Project’s concern is that reminiscent of the federal government giving land, largely taken from Native Americans, to transcontinental railroads in the mid-1800’s, HSR will use taxpayer money to take from lower-income, of color property owners in the Central Valley.

In the debate over HSR, it is important to recognize that there is a form of mass transportation that is being developed and paid for today entirely from private funds—the so-called “Chinatown buses” that run between major cities on the East Coast. These buses provide inexpensive, quick service between major population centers. At the same time that expensive HSR is proposed for the U.S. between major cities, over-the-road bus service between smaller towns has declined greatly, stranding large numbers of people, especially in rural towns. These areas would not be served by HSR because HSR can’t stop too often. To be high speed, a route must have uninterrupted runs of 100 miles just to get up to speed.

If as a nation we really want to build transportation infrastructure to connect people and places we would bring back over-the-road bus service, and broadband connectivity to increase virtual transportation. Serious transportation planning would include a more closely knit network, with availability and affordability for all and without saddling taxpayers with long term future indebtedness.

Marc Brenman is a Senior Policy Advisor for The City Project.

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