High-speed rail can increase air and road travel, says attorney Andy Kunz

How would rail complement the transport landscape and perhaps reduce the congestion of other modes?

Twenty thousand people per hour is a huge capacity, literally more than an airport and a highway combined. And so what that does is it will shift the overload state from highways and aviation to trains and then bring highways and aviation down to manageable levels so you can get smooth motion.

There is an assumption that one of the obstacles to high-speed rail is that Americans would rather drive, to have the freedom of the open road. Does this have credit?

I don’t really think that has much credibility because there’s no “open road” – I mean, unless you’re somewhere in the middle of Kansas, you know, on a Sunday after- noon. Every major metropolitan area in the country is very congested all the time. I think Americans actually thought that they were getting the freedom promised by the cars. But most of the roads are so overloaded that this freedom does not exist. This is not the reality that people have to face every day. I think if the roads were emptier, people would like to drive better than them.

How much would it cost to build this in America, and how does it compare to building interstate highways?

Several studies have recently shown that this is less than half the cost of building an equivalent highway with equivalent capacity. And so the capacity comparisons that we’ve actually heard are that one high-speed rail system, which can move 20,000 people an hour, it takes a 10-lane highway to approximate those volumes.

Why has Amtrak not delivered on the promise of rail as you described it?

It’s a bit like asking someone who has an old battered car, “Why don’t you have a brand new Escalade or something?” It all comes down to money.

If you look at what China has built: in 15 years, they have built 30,000 miles of brand new, state-of-the-art high-speed rail. It is in fact the most amazing project we have ever seen on Earth in our history. They did it by spending something like a trillion dollars. We invest about a billion dollars in Amtrak every year and expect it to run a national service, a country with 3,000 miles across 50 different states.

I mean, it’s an absurd proposition to even think that Amtrak will be able to provide great service when they’re running on nickels and running 40-year-old trains and 90-year-old tracks, for the majority . So if we invested hundreds of billions of dollars in Amtrak all these years, like France did in their rail system and Spain did in their rail system, in China and in all these other countries, we would have something equivalent to what China has right now. But we didn’t. We literally ignored rail and treated it like it was something we should forget about, kind of foolishly when you think about it, as a nation.

But it hurts us economically. This harms our economic development. This hurts our competitiveness. It harms our climate. It hurts us to be dependent on foreign oil. I mean, it probably wasn’t the smartest decision we made, ignoring rail, and we’re glad to see that finally change because it has so many potential benefits for this country that any the world – once we have a few of these lines up and running – is going to say, “Why did it take us 50 years to get this?”

What has the recent federal infrastructure bill done for rail and high-speed rail?

It was actually the largest investment in our history in the rail sector. And it was a bipartisan vote. Republicans and Democrats voted together to advance new priorities in America and lead us to new thinking. $66 billion is a huge sum. It’s not enough to do what China is doing obviously when they spent $1 trillion but $66 billion is literally $64 billion more than we ever had for rail . So there are going to be a lot of things that are going to be fixed with that. New York tunnels that are on the verge of collapse will be repaired. California will advance another big chunk of that money. Several other projects will get [funded], so things will certainly move. We’ll see big progress, literally for one of the first times in our history, because we’re finally putting enough money into it.

Jose P. Rogers