The Great Rail Race of the 21st Century

Mention “clean tech” or “green jobs,” and many people will automatically assume you are referring to wind turbine manufacturers, solar installers, and the like. But another dimension of a greener economy has long been neglected: the transportation sector, and specifically the role of rail and urban transit. That has begun to change, for a number of reasons.

For starters, ridership in many countries is increasing, as is overall public excitement about alternatives to automobile dependence. Concerns about the environmental impacts of car-centered transportation, energy import dependence, and the toll of traffic congestion on human health and urban vitality also play a role. Now, in the midst of a deep economic crisis, public investment in intercity rail and urban transit is seen as a way to kickstart languishing economies, and to create jobs in both manufacturing and operating public transportation systems.

That’s true even in the United States, which for decades has neglected rail and transit even as the federal government has invested huge sums of money in highways and air travel infrastructure. (See Figure 1, based on Congressional Budget Office data.)

U.S. passenger trips [PDF] across all public transport modes increased from 7.8 billion in 1995 to 10.7 billion in 2008.  Bus rides account for slightly more than half of the total (and grew 26 percent during these years). The fastest growth, however, has occurred in rail-based travel—39 percent for commuter rail, 76 percent for heavy rail, and 86 percent for light rail.

By one count, there were some 400 proposed new transit projects in 37 U.S. states at the end of 2008. The investment required to construct these systems was estimated at a combined $248 billion—a whopping 77 times the annual federal transit investment prior to the Obama administration.

Through the economic stimulus program known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the Obama administration made available a total of $8.4 billion for three major transit programs: $6.9 billion for the Transit Capital Assistance Program, $750 million for the Fixed Guideway Infrastructure Investment Program, and another $750 million for Capital Investment Grants.

ARRA also provides $1.3 billion for Amtrak and $8 billion for new high-speed rail corridors and intercity passenger rail service, as well as $6.9 billion for urban transit. For a historically starved passenger rail system, the ARRA funds provide unprecedented sums of funding, as an April 2009 Department of Transportation report points out. (See Figure 2 [PDF].)

All in all, ARRA offers close to $18 billion for rail and transit programs. And the regular fiscal year 2010 budget for the federal rail and transit administrations adds up to more than $15 billion—though this still represents just over one-third the funding for highways.

Among the benefits of intercity rail and urban transit spending is the creation of jobs. And as recent reports demonstrate (here, here [PDF], and here), every $1 billion spent on public transportation supports as much as twice the number of jobs gained by spending the same amount on highway infrastructure. These findings are also consistent with European [German-language PDF] numbers.

There are great hopes that ARRA and FY2010 funds are but a down-payment for a sustained strategy that rebalances the nation’s transportation infrastructure and creates large numbers of well-paying jobs. The United States lags far behind other nations in intercity passenger rail and urban transit. Companies like Alstom of France, Bombardier of Canada, and Siemens of Germany are among the leading manufacturers of locomotives and rolling stock, and Chinese companies (here and here) are rapidly increasing their capabilities and exports.

Unless the United States works hard—through sustained investments and a concerted industrial policy—to resurrect its long-dormant passenger rail manufacturing industry, many of the jobs may end up being created abroad. The great rail race of the 21st century is on.

This is the first installment in an occasional series of blog entries on rail and transit matters.  Worldwatch senior researchers Michael Renner and Gary Gardner are part of a research team that also involves Marcy Lowe and colleagues at Duke University’s Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness (CGGC) and Professor Joan Fitzgerald at Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center. The research team is part of the Apollo Alliance’s TMAP (Transportation Manufacturing Action Plan) Project, funded by the Rockefeller and Surdna Foundations.

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