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High-Speed Rail

International Lessons for U.S. Policy Makers

Petra Todorovich, Daniel Schned, and Robert Lane

September 2011, English

High-speed rail has been adopted throughout the world, and is now being planned and developed in the United States. Over the past 50 years, U.S. transportation spending has favored the development of interstate highway and aviation systems. In the meantime, countries such as China, Japan, Spain, France, and Germany have been investing in modern high-speed rail systems to satisfy the travel demands of current and future generations. As the United States embarks on the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program launched in 2009, it can learn from the experiences of other countries in planning, constructing, and operating high-speed rail.

In 2009–2010, the U.S. Congress appropriated $10.1 billion for a new high-speed and intercity passenger rail program. Applications from 39 states requested nearly $75 billion, demonstrating broad interest in and support for this program. The available funds were awarded to dozens of conventional intercity passenger rail projects and a few dedicated high-speed rail projects in 32 states and the District of Columbia, and those projects are now moving forward. The U.S. Department of Transportation, which manages the passenger rail program, has adopted a tiered approach, which emphasizes investments appropriate to the different markets and geographies in the United States. It defines three categories of passenger rail service that are intended to work together as a network: Core Express refers to high-speed trains operating on dedicated tracks with frequent service; Regional service operates at moderately high speeds and high frequency on shared corridors; and Emerging/Feeder service is less frequent and connects smaller and emerging markets to major markets located along Regional and Core Express routes.

Decades of international experience with high-speed rail suggests that it could create similar transportation, economic, environmental, and safety benefits in American cities and regions. While it requires high upfront investment, high-speed rail promotes economic growth by improving market access, boosting productivity of knowledge workers, expanding labor markets, and attracting visitor spending. When planned thoughtfully with complementary investments in the public realm, high-speed rail can promote urban regeneration and attract commercial development, as shown in several European examples. High-speed rail has greater operating energy efficiency than competing modes and takes up less land than highways.

The initial investment of $10.1 billion in the U.S. High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program, after years of minimal federal investment, required that the federal government and participating states quickly scale up to the challenge of laying the groundwork for a foundational program and implementing it at the same time. Those states that had the staff capacity, expertise, and experience in rail planning, such as Illinois, North Carolina, and Washington, were successful in securing high-speed rail grants. However, carrying the momentum of this initial investment forward has proven to be a struggle in a difficult fiscal environment, and California is currently the only federally funded Core Express high-speed rail project moving forward. In 2011, Congress voted to strip funding from the program. The expiration of the legislation authorizing the high-speed rail program in 2013 may provide an opportunity to consider policy changes.

This report describes several funding strategies that have proven to be successful in other countries, and makes specific policy recommendations to better position the federal high-speed rail program for success.

    • Strengthen the federal policy and management framework by expanding the federal role in planning and prioritizing high-speed rail corridors and working with the states to secure rights-of-way.
    • Prioritize corridors that meet investment criteria by clarifying the objectives and desired outcomes of the federal program and promoting investments in those corridors that exhibit the characteristics that are indicative of success.
    • Establish new mechanisms for corridor management by developing legislation that enables the creation of public infrastructure corporations that can operate across state and national borders and attract private investment.
    • Plan for maximum land development benefits by coupling high-speed rail station investments with policies that encourage land development around station areas. In general, well-connected stations in center-city locations offer the greatest potential for urban revitalization.
    • Focus initially on the Northeast Corridor and California, which offer the best opportunities for Core Express high-speed rail service in the United States, by addressing the management and financing challenges each region faces.
    • Secure adequate and reliable funding by drawing on a full complement of potential federal, state, and private sources. Such sources could include increasing existing transportationrelated fees (such as a portion of the gas tax or ticket surcharges), creating an infrastructure bank, forging public-private partnerships, and expanding existing credit assistance programs.

This Policy Focus Report was a product of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, the Regional Plan Association and their joint venture, America 2050. The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy has been engaged in a series of projects with the Regional Plan Association for more than a decade. The partnership spawned the national initiative known as America 2050, which is aimed at meeting the infrastructure, economic development and environmental challenges of the nation, in preparation for a population increase of about 130 million by 2050. A major focus of America 2050 is the emergence of megaregions—large networks of metropolitan areas, where most of the population growth by mid-century will take place. Examples of megaregions are the Northeast Megaregion, from Boston to Washington, or Southern California, from Los Angeles to Tijuana, Mexico. High-speed rail is capable of linking employment centers and population hubs in corridors up to 600 miles in length in 11 U.S. megaregions.

About the Authors

Petra Todorovich was formerly the director of America 2050, a national urban planning initiative to develop an infrastructure and growth strategy for the United States. From 2001 to 2012, she worked at Regional Plan Association in New York City, where America 2050 was based.

Daniel Schned was formerly an associate planner for America 2050 at Regional Plan Association, where he focused on researching and planning for dedicated high-speed rail and improvements to conventional passenger rail in the Northeast Corridor.

Robert Lane is senior fellow for urban design at Regional Plan Association and a founding principal of Plan & Process LLP.


Common Property, Development, Economic Development, Economics, Environment, Environmental Planning, Globalization, Growth Controls, Growth Management, Housing, Inequality, Infrastructure, Job Sprawl, Land Use, Land Use Planning, Planning, Poverty, Public Finance, Public Utilities, Regionalism, Segregation, Smart Growth, Spatial Order, Suburban, Sustainable Development, Transport Oriented Development, Transportation, Urban, Urban Design, Urban Development, Urban Revitalization, Urban Sprawl, Urbanism