The September-October Public Forum resolution asks the question of whether United States Federal Government should substantially increase its investment in high-speed rail.
In this essay, I will discuss the key terms in the resolution, provide critical background information and review the major pro and con arguments. You can find a substantial file and a daily update on our website.
United States Federal Government (USFG). The USFG is the central government in Washington D.C. and it is made up of three branches: The Executive (the President); the Legislature (Congress); and the judiciary (Supreme Court). The executive branch has control over some funding, but Congress has the authority to appropriate significant amounts of funding and if funding for HSR was substantially increased Congress would have to act.
High-speed rail (HSR). There is “no single international standard for high speed rail,” but “new train lines have speeds in excess of…160 miles per hour (mph)…are generally considered to be high speed” (Nunno). Based on this definition, there is no HSR in the US, though Henderson claims that when the Acela Express reaches 150 mph it is HSR. At best, however, that is the closest the US comes to HSR.
Investment. An investment generally refers to taking money (capital) and developing a product that in turn could be sold for a profit with some of the profits made returned to the investor. In the instance of government investment, the government is not trying (or planning or hoping) to get a profit (or even get any of the $ back), but is more “investing” in something that will benefit society. The important thing to understand about this is that it involves the federal government spending money.
Currently, as part of the infrastructure bill, only $66 billion was proposed for rail infrastructure, including existing infrastructure. None of it was specifically given for that purpose.
It is, of course, unclear how big this investment needs to be. But in PF debate people can’t read plans and it is assumed that the pro has to defend basically all of what is possible, so I think it’s generally fair to say the pro has to argue for building it in as many places as possible. They can claim specific advantages to building it in particular places (California, Texas, Florida, the Northeast), but they have to defend building it across the board.
In the United States? The resolution doesn’t specify that the investment must occur in the US, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that the resolution will be interpreted mean the pro has to argue for it being built in the US. Conceivably, however, the US could provide foreign aid for it to be built elsewhere.
Generally speaking, Pro teams will argue that the upfront costs of HSR are too high for businesses to raise capital from private sources to build the lines with the hope of recouping the upfront costs through ticket sales later and that, therefore, investment from the government is needed.
Expansion of HSR in the US that results from the investment could produce a number of benefits.
Health. Song (2021) argues that HSR will make quality health care available to more people because it will be easier for them to get to health care facilities.
US economic competitiveness. US economic competitiveness is impacted by the cost of producing goods and making them available for sale. The lower these costs are, the more “competitive” the good is in the market: If it’s priced lower more people can afford to buy it instead of other similar goods. The argument in favor of competitiveness is that high speed rail will lower costs for companies that need to transport goods to other markets, making the cost of those goods more competitive.
Economic development. HSR promotes economic development in a number of ways. First, towns along the HSR system (Lorenz) will prosper as people sometimes commute along connecting lines. Construction along the rail lines generates economic activity and property values (Kunz) will increase. More people will be interested in living in cities and cities will prosper (Markham)
Jobs. Even $1 billion invested in HSR creates 24,000 jobs (American Public Transportation Association) directly in HSR and the overall economic development would lead to the creation of jobs for an additional 840,000 people (Lorenz). Many of these jobs will be in engineering and manufacturing. The US High Speed Rail Association claims that “millions” of jobs will be created, but there isn’t any data in the article that supports that. Wait (2021) claims that it will support remote work and flexibility, but it’s hard to impact that.
Overall economic development. High speed rail contributes to the overall economic development of the region by increasing property values in the area of the HSR (Kaewunrun), including areas between the cities, increasing demand for housing in the area and leading to the development of businesses such as restaurants and coffee shops (Josef).
The economy might improve because workers can be more productive because they will spend less time caught in traffic.
The American Transportation Association claims that every $1 in economic benefits come from every $4 invested.
You’ll need to impact these arguments with good evidence that claims that economic growth improves living standards and lengthens life expectancy (Pettinger).
The first two environment advantages — air pollution and climate change – stem from the idea that HSR is powered by electricity instead of oil and that oil emits SO2 (causes air pollution) and CO2 (causes climate change). Electricity can and sometimes is (more on that later) produced with renewable energy, which doesn’t burn oil (or coal).
Air pollution. As just discussed, HSR reduces air pollution from the burning of oil and gasoline. Air pollution kills, including 300,000 per year in the US.
Climate change. There are sort of preposterous claims from HSR advocates that make the argument that HSR can “decarbonize the majority of our entire national transportation network.” Though this is a bit of a extreme claim (see the con section), Waite argues that “transportation represents the largest source of climate-harming greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S” and that “high-speed rail reduces carbon emissions up to 90 percent compared to driving, flying or riding conventional rail, and is the fastest way to travel between two points that are a few hundred miles apart.” Henderson and Nunno reach similar conclusions.
Debaters are used to arguing climate change impacts and those impacts are easy to research but I’ll suggest a few
*”one future premature death is caused every time roughly 1,000 (300–3,000) tonnes of carbon are burned” (Parncutt)
*Every tenth of a degree increases in global warming results in millions of deaths
*Every half of a degree increase causes massive ecological disruption
*Temperatures have increased 1.1 degrees but 1.5 degrees will destroy the environment (Friedman)
Urban sprawl. Urban sprawl refers to the idea that as more people move away from cities environmental problems are caused by two things: (1) pollution from commuting into cities for work and (2) environmental damage caused by the building of roads and bridges to the outlying suburbs. If HSR can make city life more attractive because will more easily be able to travel to other places, the second problem can be solved. Any pollution from commuting can be reduced.
This is an area that needs more work in the release, but it is strategically valuable because one common con argument will be that building HSR lines is disruptive to the environment. This will give the pro a leg-up on this argument.
Reduced oil consumption/oil dependence. Since HSR would end up being powered by electricity, demand for oil from gasoline-powered vehicles would decline (Josef). Reducing demand for oil reduces prices (law of supply and demand). This not only takes financial pressure off consumers, but it would lower US oil dependence on foreign countries. Reducing the price could reduce the power of countries like Russia. A separate essay on the harms of foreign oil dependence is coming.
Social cohesion. This is something that needs more work in the release, but the basic idea is that if HSR causes people to live closer together in cities there will be more social cohesion. With more people living in the suburbs, people are less connected.
Convenience. This is hard to quantify or impact in a debate, but HSR is more convenient.
Regional lines. Since regional lines are funded largely by federal dollars, pro teams might claim advantages that are specific to California, Texas (Houston-Dallas), Florida, North Carolina/Virginia and the Northeast.