Innovations in Sustainability: High Speed Rail in the U.S.

The Obama Administration has demonstrated its willingness to invest in clean technology through the High Speed Intercity Rail Program, which was launched nearly a year ago and aims to connect major cities through targeted investments in the existing railroad infrastructure. The initial phase of the project is currently underway in several locations, and the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) anticipates issuing a national rail plan by fall of this year.

The Environmental and Energy Study Institute and the American Public Transportation Association co-hosted a briefing last week on the “Benefits, Costs, and Challenges” of high speed rail development, at which participants discussed the topic in the context of growing domestic tourism, the threat of increasing oil prices, deregulation of the airline industry, and a crumbling, congested interstate system – and whether America’s so-called “love affair with the automobile” will continue to stand in the way of new approaches to investing in public transportation.

Map showing US high speed rail corridors as of July 9th, 2009.

Despite encouraging signs of state and federal support, many experts in the field wonder what impact high speed rail will have on reducing transportation-related carbon emissions without the promise of imminent implementation.

The U.S. still has a way to go with developing a high-speed system. The panelists noted that, despite the best of intentions, federal grant money available through the FRA is only about $8 billion, an amount that China spends every few weeks on building what is now the longest high speed rail network in the world.

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