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Why high-speed rail has been a tough sell in the United States


Do you remember the futuristic digital world of the movie "Tron?" Well, I figured we'd be a little closer to that by now. And in a sense, actually, we might be. Congress recently allocated $66 billion for passenger and freight rail, and a sizable chunk of that money could go to high-speed rail. Think about passenger trains that can travel about as fast as 220 mph. So when might we see more super-fast trains whizzing through American cities? Joining us to talk about this is Andy Kunz. He's president and CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association. Andy, your group lobbies for high-speed rail funding. What are the benefits of a system like this? Make your high-speed rail pitch for us, please.

ANDY KUNZ: So high-speed rail offers a whole new option for getting around the country quick and easy. Right now, all of our transportation modes are really at capacity and are getting worse. And so this offers a very fast, reliable, high-capacity system to get places that you can count on. Many Americans travel to Europe and ride these trains and love them, and then they come back here and wonder why we don't have them.

MARTÍNEZ: What are some of the benefits, though? What would be something that someone would say, yeah, that's good for the world?

KUNZ: Well, the great thing about it is it can be fully powered by renewable energy. And so that's one of the best things, is that it gets us off oil, you know, is it helps us reverse climate change.

MARTÍNEZ: Why don't we have high-speed rail systems in the U.S. then?

KUNZ: We've just not prioritized it. I mean, we've spent a couple trillion dollars on highways and almost 800 billion on aviation, while to date we've spent only about 4 billion on high-speed rail. So that's really the main issue.

MARTÍNEZ: I'm in California, Andy. High-speed rail in California has had a lot of starts and stops. Why do these projects, why do they have trouble getting on track? Pun intended.

KUNZ: Well, there's several reasons. I mean, these are big, huge infrastructure projects that span hundreds of miles, crossing, you know, numerous jurisdictions. That - right? - alone is extremely complicated. And of course, you've got pressure from all the existing industries in transportation, who use their lobbying influence to try to prevent any change.

MARTÍNEZ: And I think most people associate passenger rail with Amtrak. So how would high-speed rail then fit in with slower rail networks that already exist?

KUNZ: Well, those two are very complimentary. I mean, it's very similar to the road system in that you have a trunk line, you know, limited-access highways. And then you have local roads and collector roads and neighborhood roads. And so you smoothly drive from one to the next, to the next, right on the on-ramp and go. So with rail, it's the same thing. You need the high-speed rail trunk lines, which is kind of the equivalent of the highway system. And then you need all these feeder lines to serve smaller towns and collect people together and transfer them right into the high-speed rail. So these will all interface at the big main stations. And so you'll be able to step right off a high-speed train, walk across the platform, hop on an Amtrak or a local commuter rail and go to your destination.

MARTÍNEZ: Andy, I'm half a century old. I'm hoping for a good 20 years left. You think I'm going to be on a high-speed rail going from LA to New York in 20 years?

KUNZ: That's possible.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

KUNZ: Although, it's probably more likely that there will be multiple systems in multiple places that are smaller ones that you'll be able to ride.

MARTÍNEZ: Andy Kunz is the president and CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association. Andy, thanks.

KUNZ: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAFT PUNK'S "END OF LINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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