The Construction Perks of High Speed RailBy Kim Phelan
Article Date: 08-01-2010
Copyright(C) 2010 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.
Bona fide 180-220 mph intercity passenger rail could be an economic game-changer for developers and the industries that serve them.
Even as the construction equipment industry and its allies wait desperately for Congress to reauthorize what is commonly called “the highway bill,” another emerging mode of surface transportation is struggling to stay on the map and gain recognition for its role in modern mobility. High speed rail (HSR) – which can mean different things to different people – tends to gets the crumbs from infrastructure’s table, but HSR advocates and state DOTs are trying to make the most of every cent allocated to them.
Balanced perspective is difficult to achieve or find – highway advocates scoff at the notion of high speed trains offering serious intercity transportation alternatives to business and car-dependent travelers. And on the other side, HSR enthusiasts can talk for hours about the transportation, environmental and public benefits their method offers. But somewhere in the middle, those who genuinely have transportation at heart understand the public importance and relevance of both; and what’s more, they see how the construction industry at large (and hence the equipment industry) stands to benefit from the growth of HSR.
Bruce Horowitz, principal of ESH Consult in Alexandria, Va., a veteran rail transport economist and HSR advocate who conducts studies for major HSR projects around the country, acknowledges that the growing need for HSR does not negate the urgency for a renewed and generous commitment to highways.
“Our highways are crumbling and it’s extremely important to maintain and improve and support our highway infrastructure,” Horowitz said. “And the bottom line is, all transportation professionals agree that we need to raise the gas tax – it’s the only thing that will solve the [funding] problem. We need to have a committal source to maintain, improve and build even more infrastructure.”
But Horowitz can just as quickly articulate why a greater appropriation of public funding ought to be channeled toward HSR, especially in corridors where it makes the most sense. Congestion relief, reduced carbon footprint, energy efficiency, safety (trains are five to 10 times more safe per mile than automobiles, he says) are among the top arguments for increased funding for HSR, according to Horowitz. But another compelling reason for advancing HSR projects is that it’s good for a variety of construction sectors.
This applies most, in his opinion, where true, world class, intercity high speed rail is developed. Distinctions between different types of higher, high-speed and conventional passenger rail are clarified on the Federal Rail Authority website, www.fra.dot.gov, where four categories are defined, but HSR Express is what Horowitz is talking about when he discusses world class HSR that will have the most positive impact on construction far beyond the mere building of railways and stations. (Frequent, express service between major population centers 200-600 miles apart, with few intermediate stops. Top speeds of at least 150 mph on completely grade-separated, dedicated rights-of-way...Intended to relieve air and highway capacity constraints.)What makes true HSR especially significant to the CE industry, according to Horowitz, is not only the earthmoving and infrastructure work created by rail tunnels, bridges, supports, and new rights-of-way, but a multitude of construction needs that crop up from the presence of true, 180-220 mph intercity HSR stations in a community. A game-changer in a sense, super-fast ground travel between cities that competes in time with air travel and appeals to business and upscale passengers who can afford a ticket priced perhaps in the range of $75 could catapult development wherever there’s a stop, much the way an airport does. Horowitz says his experience as a rail researcher has caused him to conclude that for the very highest speed, world class rail systems, booms will occur in residential and commercial building, as well as road another infrastructure building throughout intermediate communities served. And local economies will thrive, too, as franchises compete for close proximity to these brand new hubs that bring in hundreds of people per hour needing everything from rental cars and retail stores to food and lodging, and more. A far cry from the current U.S. intercity rail experience, true HSR of the Japanese, European and Chinese type, provides reliably on-time trips on at least an hourly basis. And because real estate values will go up, more people will want to move to these locations, according to Horowitz.
“World-style high speed rail will revolutionize land use and development,” he said. “All investments that use public money to pay people to build things create jobs, and jobs create economic benefit – it’s proportional to how much you spend…These are reasons the construction industry should get behind this – it’s a double win for them.”
Naysayers of HSR are certainly out there. This spring, while lashing out about Transportation Secretary LaHood’s apparent bias toward freight rail, American Trucking Association President Bill Graves told Transport Topics, “The whole notion that the American public is going to park their cars and embark on a massive transition to public transit, to biking and walking, perhaps it’s my bias coming from a state like Kansas, it is just simply not going to happen.”
Nevertheless, state DOTs, engineers, research firms, and planners are inching forward, and some real and ready HSR projects are on the verge of becoming more than mere drawings.
On Jan. 28 this year, President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. DOT awarded $8 billion to 31 states for rail projects, but the lion’s share went to California, Florida and the Midwest. Forty states submitted requests for 278 projects totaling $102 billion, about 13 times what was available, according to a February Stateline.com article. A piece of California’s HSR corridor and Florida’s Orlando-to-Tampa project, (both the most pure in high speed rail definition) together got half of the total spend. And Florida is the closest to actual start of construction, less than a year from now.
Anyone familiar with construction, and infrastructure building costs in particular, can quickly appreciate how little $8 billion really is in the grand scheme of things, and how quickly that drop in the HSR bucket would disappear. Considering that President Obama is eager to get the U.S. on board with HSR rather than watch China’s continued fast track, HSR proponents are understandably disappointed by his $1 billion request for HSR in the 2011 federal budget.
Even four times that sum, which is what the pro-rail sponsors of www.fourbillion.com are pushing for, is hardly enough to get HSR’s adrenalin pumping.
“The funding challenges are overwhelming,” said Horowitz. “We are trying to do so much with so little; it’s a very troubling picture.”
With states tottering on bankruptcy and a debt-bedraggled federal government juggling its priorities, HSR joins highways in the soup line, waiting and hoping for an extra ladleful.
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