High-Speed Rail Technology: A New Frontier in U.S.-Japan Relations?

When President Obama unveiled his budget allocation for high-speed rail, he said, “In France, high-speed rail has pulled regions from isolation, ignited growth and, remade quiet towns into thriving tourist destinations.” His remarks emphasize how high-speed rail is increasing the accessibility of isolated places as an argument for similarly investments.

October 2015 | by David Delaney

The United States lags behind many other countries in harnessing the potential of high-speed rail to improve connectivity among metropolitan areas, diminish the economic and social costs of traffic congestion, and renovate an aging transportation infrastructure. Japan, on the other hand, has been a global leader in high-speed rail since the introduction of the first “bullet trains” half a century ago, and now, through magnetic levitation (maglev) technology, has developed one of the fastest trains in the world. Recent proposals to construct a maglev train network in the Northeast Corridor have been met with mixed reactions. The maglev line could cut the travel time between metro areas, boost economic growth, alleviate traffic congestion, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, it faces implementation challenges of land acquisition for new track and the necessity of billions of dollars in repair work to the existing road and rail infrastructure.

Considerations for State Legislatures

Clearly there is palpable demand as the high speed rail program has been hugely over-subscribed by state and local applicants who are clamoring for new approaches. For the $8 billion in grants, the federal government received $102 billion in pre-applications and $55 billion in final applications. In the end, 38 projects were awarded to 31 states, with most funds flowing to 13 specific corridors. Annual appropriations in the FY 2010 and FY 2011 budgets will augment the federal investment.

These are the kind of game changing, market-shaping investments in the next economy that we have long deferred. The United States operates in a fiercely competitive world where established nations like Germany and rising nations like China, India, and Brazil are moving forward. These and other countries are making seismic and ultimately transformative investments in rail, and other kinds of infrastructure such as renewable energy, modern ports, and metropolitan transit.

State legislators need to understand the importance of merits and measures when it comes to new federal transportation initiatives like the national high speed rail program. This is not a legacy program that has languished in the bureaucratic halls of the transportation department or one that was earmarked to death by Congress. Rather these funds were designed to be awarded on a competitive basis. States sent in requests for the grants and those applications were evaluated based on quantitative metrics including economic, social, and sustainability benefits. Projects also had to be far enough along in their development, take advantage of innovative technology, and promote a range of public and private partnerships.

This is nothing short of a sea change for how Washington thinks about infrastructure investments. Look no further than the Florida high speed rail project as an example. While many eyebrows were raised when that project was announced, the corridor hits a couple key conditions laid out by the U.S. DOT. It is relatively "shovel ready" in that key environmental impact assessments and other procedural hurdles have been cleared. It leverages private sector funds as the Disney Corporation donated $25 million in land for one of the station locations and a private partner, not the state, will assume the risk of ridership revenue to cover the costs of the system.

Making sure these investments are made in the best possible projects is critical. One lesson our European competitors have taught us is that it is important to get the initial investment right. Then demand for additional investments increases, political and public support follows, and the national system is built incrementally. State legislators have a primary role in that.


Executive Editor

 Ms Anna Sullivan

Ms Anna Sullivan