A Revolution in Transport Priorities?

This post was co-authored by Michael Renner and Gary Gardner

The prospects of Congressional reauthorization of a multi-year surface transportation bill in the United States—already many months overdue—appear dim this year. Identifying funding sources is one of the major stumbling blocks, and legislators seem to lack a vision of what 21st-century mobility entails. They might gain inspiration from developments in France.

On July 9, the French government released a draft plan for transportation infrastructure investments (called “avant-projet au schéma national des infrastructures de transports”) over the next two decades. If the priorities hold, it will represent nothing less than an “adieu” to decades of car-centered development.

Of €170 billion ($220 billion) in planned spending, €85 billion—50 percent—will be allocated to high-speed rail, and €53 billion—31 percent—to urban trams, subways, and bus lines. That’s a whopping 81 percent of transportation spending for public transport! Roads and airports, by contrast, will receive only a combined 5 percent, with the remainder going to ports and waterways.

By 2020, a total of 2,300 kilometers of new high-speed rail (HSR) lines are to be built, with another 1,500 kilometers planned by 2030. (See map.) Urban mass-transit lines are to be expanded fivefold to a total of 1,800 kilometers. It is expected that the overall plan will reduce the annual carbon dioxide emissions of France’s transportation sector, currently at 30 million tons, by 2 million tons.

Planned additional high-speed rail lines in France

But, as the newspaper Les Echos comments, the plan does not specify how the French government will finance the plan—through taxes, user fees, borrowing, or other measures, including the mobilization of private investments—which raises some questions about the overall viability of the plan.

Financing could also prove somewhat of an Achilles heel of ambitious Spanish plans. Spain currently has the largest high-speed rail construction program in Europe and, at 1,614 kilometers, already has the second-longest HSR track in Europe after France. Plans call for a total of 10,000 kilometers built by 2020, meaning that Spain will add more than three times the additional capacity envisioned under the already ambitious French plan by the same date.

The 2004 Strategic Plan for Infrastructures and Transport (PEIT) calls for 44 percent of total transportation investment by 2020 to be directed toward rail, primarily for expansion of the high-speed network. Between 2005 and 2020, some $152 billion is to be invested in rail, with $115 billion going to high-speed routes.

By 2010, with the country deeply mired in the global recession, the Spanish government turned to infrastructure investments, especially in rail, as a way to stimulate the economy. Its two-year Extraordinary Infrastructure Plan, rolled out in April 2010, promised to invest some $22 billion in transportation, with 70 percent going to rail and 30 percent to highways. High-speed rail tracks will see about $8 billion in new investment in 2010 alone. This latter amount is about as much as the U.S. stimulus program (ARRA) makes available for high-speed rail. Per capita, however, it’s almost 7 times as much.

Given high levels of public debt, initial investments in projects will be made by construction companies and financial institutions, rather than the government. The government will begin to pay companies for their work starting in 2014, after projects are completed. Government spending is to be financed by a new tax on users of the infrastructure.

While a warm bienvenue and bienvenido is being extended to rail in these two European countries, the United States still struggles to offer its own welcome mat. The existing U.S. intercity rail network is fragmented, plans for the future are far less sweeping, and funding remains uncertain.

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