High-Speed Rail Is High-Speed Growth We All Should Demand

Dave Johnson

While construction of other high-speed rail lines around the country has been blocked, California’s line between San Francisco and Los Angeles is actually getting built. This single project is triggering a lot of potential American hiring.

As it proceeds, we should build pressure to bring high-speed transportation – and the jobs and economic boom that will follow – to other gridlocked areas of the country.

California’s highways and airways are reaching capacity, and the population is only expected to grow – a lot. You can only build so many highways and new airports. And more and more cars and planes are not particularly good for the environment.

Meanwhile, high-speed rail, moving at over 200 miles per hour, can bring people from downtown Los Angeles to downtown San Francisco in 2.5 hours. This is comparable to and more convenient than flying. And the cost of the high-speed rail system is lower than the cost of enough new highways and airports to handle the load, if they could even be built.

In January, California Gov. Jerry Brown officially broke ground to begin construction of the first segment of the high-speed rail line. This segment will be built between Madera and Bakersfield, in the central valley. Eventually the train will have up to 24 stops between Los Angeles, San Francisco and, ultimately, Sacramento.

High-Speed Rail Will Trigger A Boom Along Its Route

These stops will become “station communities.” According to the California High-Speed Rail Authority website, “More than just a place for individuals to get on or off a train, these station communities will serve as hubs of social and economic activity and bring vitality to city centers.”

Robert Cruickshank’s California High-Speed Rail Blog has a post, “Report Shows High-Speed Rail Will Be Economic Boost to Central Valley,” explaining “the study shows that high-speed rail will provide a major economic boost to the Central Valley – especially if it is built without delay. It will help diversify the central valley’s economy and break down geographic and economic barriers.”

It would open up the Valley’s more affordable homes to coastal workers – without necessarily fueling sprawl that would threaten farmland. It would make it easier for coastal businesses to relocate to the Central Valley, where land use costs are lower, without alienating themselves from their pool of employees. That all in turn generates some of the growth and incomes needed to support a knowledge economy in cities like Fresno and Bakersfield – on top of, rather than in place of, agriculture.

Buy America Requirement Triggering Business

California’s High-Speed Rail Authority is taking bids for its first 16 trains – each to carry more than 450 passengers – and is expected to order 95 more trains over the next 14 years. That represents a lot of steel, technology, manufacturing and jobs.

And here’s the thing. The federal government is helping pay for this project, which means federal Buy America requirements apply.

Michael Marois, writing at Bloomberg Business Wednesday in “Race to Build California Bullet Train Shows Value of U.S. Market” explains that a number of manufacturers are hoping California’s high-speed rail project “could fuel a U.S. manufacturing boom.”

The Federal Railroad Administration stipulates that any project on U.S. soil receiving federal funding must use equipment made in this country, with parts also fabricated here. Overseas manufacturers would have to build or expand U.S. facilities to do the work, and California officials say they will give preference to companies willing to build in the state.

Thanks to this Buy America requirement, manufacturing, suppliers and the rest of a train-building ecosystem will grow up here in the U.S. After this California order, these facilities will export to other countries, and hopefully will be able to supply other high-speed rail projects in the U.S.

Why Not More?

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (“stimulus”) provided $8 billion to trigger high-speed rail projects around the country, and several were planned. But Republican governors in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin killed the projects there – just as several of them killed Medicaid expansion. And in 2014, the Republican House zeroed out all funding for high-speed rail.

Why do Republicans oppose building high-speed rail between America’s cities, relieving our aging and gridlocked highways? Possibly this is because Republicans receive major funding from oil companies. This helps further an “ideological” agenda under which their top priority is “drill, baby, drill,” and includes building the Keystone XL pipeline, denying climate change, canceling government help for alternative energy research and projects and blocking the development of high-speed rail to efficiently move people. They also oppose Buy America requirements in federal procurement. (See “House Republicans Blocked Critical ‘Make It In America’ Bill” and “GOP Votes Against Requiring U.S.-Made Steel In Keystone Pipeline.”)

Imagine if other high-speed rail projects could get around the Republican blockade. The economic effect would be comparable to the opening of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, which was government-funded through bond guarantees and land grants. How many people would be hired to construct the rail lines? How many to build the engines and passenger cars? How many “station communities” would grow up along the rail lines? How much of a difference would it make if so many more people could move more rapidly, efficiently and conveniently?

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