WASHINGTON (CN) – Senators of all political stripes agreed Tuesday that the United States must build a high-speed rail system that rivals those in France and Japan, especially now that the United States has seen its sixth year of consecutive gains in train ridership. “We shouldn’t be flying people 500 miles or less,” said panel member Edward Rendell, the Governor of Pennsylvania.
In the crowded room, members of the panel expressed concern that if the United States doesn’t begin to build more high-speed rail, it might not be able to handle the stress a growing population will put on the other modes of transportation.
In next 50 years, the United States will have 150 million new residents, which is a 50 percent population increase of what it has now, said panel member Tom Skancke, the commissioner of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission.
Existing rail has already seen growing demand. New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg, chair of the subcommittee, said that 28 million people rode on Amtrak in 2008, breaking the ridership record for the sixth time in a row.
“If we provide convenient and reliable service, Americans will choose it,” he told the rest of the Senate Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security.
West Virginia Democrat, Jay Rockefeller agreed. “They want to use rail and they want to use fast rail,” he said.
California Democrat Barbara Boxer cited an election in California, where voters agreed to fund $9 billion to ultimately build a high-speed rail line that runs from Sacramento to San Diego.
“The people there really understand it,” she said.
High-speed rail in California is predicted to save 12.7 million barrels of oil each year, and reduce carbon emissions by 12 billion pounds.
At the hearing, passenger rail was treated like a hot fashion. Everybody wanted it. South Dakota Republican John Thune, the ranking member said, “Maybe with all the stimulus money we could get some.” His state has no passenger rail.
Lautenberg displayed a chart of federal transportation expenditures. Highway investment towered above the others. The line representing aviation was moderately high on the chart, but the line showing intercity passenger rail funds was barely visible, hugging the bottom.
“It’s obvious that we’ve invested too little in rail,” he said, and called the investment “pitiful.”
Susan Fleming, a director in the Government Accountability Office, said that in countries like France and Japan, the central government funds high-speed rail construction, and that a system based entirely on private funding should not be expected.
Despite the discrepancy in past government investment, rail is one of the cleanest and most efficient means of transportation. It is 17 percent more efficient than air travel, and 21 percent more efficient than car travel.
Under the Recovery Act, the federal government will invest $13 billion over the next five years to improve passenger rail, and build high-speed rail.
While members of the subcommittee agreed that $13 billion would not be enough, they called it a good start.
“Our vision matches what they have done in Europe,” said Joseph Szabo, administrator to the Federal Railroad Administration. Subcommittee members said the United States needs a system like the one in Japan and France, where trains run between 160 and 170 mph.
“We shouldn’t be flying people 500 miles or less,” Rendell from Pennsylvania said.
Rockefeller called it “thrilling” to have somebody in the White House who wants to expand the train system.
Rendell of Pennsylvania said that Obama will be remembered for high-speed rail, like former President Dwight Eisenhower is remembered for the interstate highway system.