Quick-Warner, Wilson: High-speed rail speeds past congestion to bright economic future
Since 1993, Portland-area congestion has increased a whopping 252%, with the average resident now spending 89 hours every year in traffic. Meanwhile in the Eugene and Salem areas, time spent in congestion has increased more than 150%.
As we return to normal, it's only going to get worse. Oh, and it's bad for business and the climate, too.
It does not have to be this way.
With federal leadership and investment, high-speed rail could reverse our congestion crisis, while creating millions of good jobs and decarbonizing much of our transportation system. Unfortunately, President Biden's $2 trillion American Jobs Plan only provides $20 billion that high-speed rail projects could qualify for — 1%. Even if all $20 billion went to high-speed rail, it would not be enough to fund a single, major new line.
Biden's plan provides hundreds of billions to electrify our cars, fix potholes and make our bridges safer — all necessary investments. Yet without an equally robust investment in high-speed rail, these investments will deepen our congestion woes. The time has come for Washington D.C., to move beyond a 1950s approach to transportation planning.
Due to the continuing dominance of the fly-and-drive status quo, America is one of the last remaining industrialized nations that does not utilize high-speed rail.
This oversight has led us to never-ending traffic jams and has put our nation at a competitive disadvantage. Meanwhile, China has built 22,000 miles of state-of-the-art high-speed rail during the past 14 years, creating an entire new export industry in the process. By 2028, China is expected to surpass America as the world's leading economy. That same year, they are expected to have 40,000 miles of high-speed rail in operation.
The Chinese have figured out that high-speed rail offers an exceptional alternative transport mode. One set of tracks can efficiently carry 20,000 people per hour, the equivalent of a six-lane highway but at 250 miles per hour, four times the speed of a car, and without congestion, hassles or delays.
Just imagine if our transportation system was so fast and easy to navigate that taking a car or a plane was a choice, not a necessity. High speed rail adds balance to the transportation mix that takes pressure off our overloaded highways and runways, reducing congestion and delay for the whole system.
High-speed rail has an unmatched track record of safety. Japan, with the world's first high speed rail network, has carried millions of people over 50 years without a single fatality. In comparison, as many as 40,000 Americans are killed every year in auto accidents on our highways.
Imagine the transformative impact of a high-speed rail line running from Eugene to Vancouver, British Columbia. A Portland salesperson could prepare for an important client meeting in Seattle with dedicated wifi and ample workspace, while gliding past the notorious congestion on Interstate 5 and arriving in only an hour.
At a recent hearing on high-speed rail Congressman Peter DeFazio said, "If I could count on the train trip being under two hours and on-time from Eugene to Portland, I would never fly that route or drive on I-5 again."
High-speed rail would reduce this trip to a 35-minute commute, eliminating the need for millions of intercity car trips in this corridor every year.
Oregonians who work in high-priced Eugene or Portland and struggle to afford housing, with a short 15-minute train ride, could find affordable housing options in Albany, Salem and Longview and dozens of adjacent communities. High-speed rail would reverse decades of disinvestment in our small towns and rural communities that have been stranded from economic opportunity, far from our urban cores.
The Washington State Department of Transportation estimated adding high-speed rail from Portland to Vancouver, B.C., would generate $355 billion in additional regional economic activity and at $42 billion to build, would be the low-cost solution to our regional congestion crisis. By contrast, the department has estimated that adding one lane in each direction of I-5 along this same route would cost $108 billion. They also point out that travel times would not be improved.
With these and so many other benefits, we concur with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg's recent statement, "I don't know why people in other countries ought to have better train service or more investment in high-speed rail than Americans do."
So, if you find yourself stuck in traffic on your way home this weekend or in the coming weeks as your life returns to a new normal, just know, there could be a better way.
Brittany Quick-Warner is president and chief executive officer of the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce. Keith Wilson is president and CEO of TITAN Freight Systems in Portland, and an advisory board member of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association.
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