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High-Speed Rail Is at a Crossroads, Industry Experts Say

The possibility of new funding and potential expansion opportunities has high-speed rail advocates watching the activity in Washington, D.C. If new infrastructure is funded, it could jumpstart a new era of rail travel.

A Brightline train pulls into a south Florida station. The private company is planning a high-speed rail project to connect Las Vegas with Los Angeles.
About 250 miles is the sweet spot for high-speed rail trips; at least, that’s how experts working in the space see it.

Distances that are “too short to fly, and too far to drive,” is the way Ben Porritt, senior vice president of corporate affairs with Brightline Trains, described the business case for high-speed rail projects during the CoMotion MIAMI conference in June.

Brightline Trains is a private company operating inter-city rail service in south Florida serving the cities of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, with plans to expand the high-speed service to Orlando, with a station located at the Orlando International Airport. (Brightline is still under a pandemic-imposed service suspension.)

The company is also planning a route connecting Las Vegas to Los Angeles, which Porritt believes can be completed in less than four years. The first phase would connect Las Vegas to Victorville, Calif., 169 miles away in the southern California desert, with the connection to Los Angeles Union Station coming later.

“What everybody’s talking about, this once-in-a-generational moment, it’s going to give us the opportunity to break through what we call the inertia, certainly with high-speed rail,” said Porritt, speaking on a transportation panel at the CoMotion conference. CoMotion is a think tank for transportation and urban innovation.

“I think when we look at the next five years for high-speed rail in this country, I think the private sector and the public sector will come through and break that inertia, and actually have the beginnings of a national network,” he added.

Porritt’s comments come at a time of some of the most robust transportation and infrastructure conversations in a generation, as the Biden administration works to move a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill through Congress, which would include $66 billion for rail.

Already, however, Amtrak is lobbying for much of this funding to be used for technology upgrades and long overdue maintenance on the country’s only passenger rail network. Brightline is advocating the development of new rail lines, expanding service options, in an effort to nudge passengers out of both planes and personal cars.

“If you were to ask everybody out there today what they expect to come out of this bill when it comes to high-speed rail, they would say, they envision new corridors, new cities that they could travel to, and new routes that they can use. Not simply modernizing the rail line that we have today,” said Porritt.

“Our fear for moving forward is that, if we get $60 [billion] to $80 billion, and we get no new rail lines in this country, that could effectively be the end of high-speed rail,” he added. “And we cannot allow this moment to pass without getting together with the federal government and the private sector and saying, we’ve got to pick corridors that will be successful.”

It’s not just Brightline planning these rail projects. Texas Central would connect Dallas with Houston, with a stop near College Station, home to Texas A&M University. The $20 billion project aims to be fully operational by 2026. The 236-mile trip could be made in less than 90 minutes, according to Texas Central, significantly shorter than the four hours needed to drive the distance.

And of course, perhaps the most high-profile high-speed rail project in the country is currently under construction in California’s Central Valley, an ambitious plan to ultimately connect Los Angeles with San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes. The 520-mile project, first approved by voters in 2008, was estimated to cost $45 billion and be operational by 2020. Many delays and cost increases later, the project has been scaled as a phased development with the first phase covering 171 miles, connecting Bakersfield to Merced, with other segments to follow.

Complicating large-scale public infrastructure projects like these have been political forces, with conservatives often opposing them. The Biden administration just recently restored a $929 million federal grant for the California rail project, which had been pulled by the Trump administration.

“We’re in an extraordinarily politically polarized moment in this country,” said John Rossant, CEO and founder of CoMotion, speaking on the transportation panel.

In L.A., “there are a lot of people who think having their own car, and being able to drive it anywhere, or in an unfettered way, etc., is kind of a God-given right,” Rossant continued. “It’s almost like a Second Amendment issue, and we have to avoid this becoming a politicized argument in the United States.”

“That could be a dark side of how this plays out,” he added.

In terms of costs, Brightline believes it can build a bullet train cheaper than the California High-Speed Rail project. The project planned to connect Los Angeles to Las Vegas is estimated to cost $33 million a mile, said Porritt. This compares with $117 million a mile for the California rail project developed in the Central Valley, connecting Bakersfield to Merced, according to California High-Speed Rail officials.

The Brightline project aims to place the rail line within the Interstate 15 right of way, taking advantage of a corridor that has already been through the acquisition process as well as engineering.

However, comparing the two may be an exercise fraught with complications, since the two projects involve different factors, like land acquisition, say officials.

“While every project is different, California high-speed rail is unique in the U.S. as it is required to acquire right of way (ROW) along the full 119 miles currently under construction in the Central Valley,” wrote Sofia Gutierrez, public information officer for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, in an email to Government Technology.

All of the high-speed rail projects would use high-tech, non-polluting trains, which, if adopted in a meaningful way by the traveling public, could take a sizable number of cars off the highway and reduce air travel, both of which are large contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.

Editor's note: This story was updated to more accurately reflect the scope and cost of California's high-speed rail project.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.