High Speed Passenger Rail:

Future Development Will Depend on Addressing Financial and Other Challenges and Establishing a Clear Federal Role

GAO-09-560T: Published: Apr 1, 2009. Publicly Released: Apr 1, 2009.

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This testimony discusses the potential viability of high speed rail in the United States. Federal and other decision makers have had a renewed interest in how high speed rail might fit into the national transportation system and address increasing mobility constraints on highways and at airports due to congestion. This testimony is based on our report issued March 19, 2009, entitled High Speed Passenger Rail: Future Development Will Depend on Addressing Financial and Other Challenges and Establishing a Clear Federal Role. In preparing the report, we reviewed federal legislation; interviewed federal, state, local, and private sector officials, as well as U.S. project sponsors; and reviewed high speed rail development in France, Japan, and Spain. More detailed information on our scope and methodology appears in the March 19, 2009, report. We conducted our work in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. This statement focuses on (1) the factors affecting the economic viability of high speed rail projects, including difficulties in determining the economic viability of proposed projects; (2) the challenges in developing and financing high speed rail systems; and (3) the federal role in the potential development of U.S. high speed rail systems.

In summary, high speed rail does not offer a quick or simple solution to relieving congestion on our nation's highways and airways. High speed rail projects are costly, risky, take years to develop and build, and require substantial up-front public investment as well as potentially long-term operating subsidies. Yet the potential benefits of high speed rail--both to riders and nonriders--are many. Whether any of the nearly 50 current domestic high speed rail proposals (or any future domestic high speed rail proposal), may eventually be built will hinge on addressing the funding, public support, and other challenges facing these projects. Determining which, if any, proposed high speed rail projects should be built will require decision makers to be better able to determine a project's economic viability--meaning whether total social benefits offset or justify total social costs.

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