The metallic elephant in the room : short range flights, high-speed rail, and the environment

Date

2011-05

Authors

Johnson, Donovan Theodore

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Abstract

It is of nearly universal acceptance that one of the pillars of American economic success over the course of the 20th century was the rapid development of infrastructure. Transportation infrastructure has been of particular importance in the rise of the United States and attributed to the spread of an increasingly mobile culture. Americans undoubtedly enjoy traveling, and the ability to do so with relative ease is of immense value to many.

In Texas, the majority of economic activity takes place within what is colloquially known as the “Texas Triangle”, an area bounded by the large metropolitan areas of Houston, Dallas-Ft. Worth, and San Antonio. Intensive population growth in Texas, anchored by the triangle, has led to increasing road congestion on many routes, especially along Interstates 35 and 10. This congestion, and the wasted time and money that comes with it, are of increasing concern to the future economic vitality of the state.

The Texas Triangle is also served by extensive aviation links via major airports in the major metropolitan areas, as well as smaller airports in other parts of the region. These flights, operated by American Airlines, Continental Airlines, and Southwest Airlines are frequent, but emit large amounts of greenhouse gases that contribute to ground level pollution and possibly climate change. High-speed rail has been considered by many to be a superior environmental option for intercity routes with lengths inherent to the Texas Triangle.

However, given the fact that Texas is the top emitter of carbon dioxide in the U.S. and relies on an energy mix that is primarily fossil fuel powered; would a potential high-speed rail in Texas outperform the current air system environmentally, given similar passenger miles traveled? This report examines the environmental emissions of high-speed rail and compares it to the environmental emissions of our current aviation system, taking into account a life-cycle perspective.

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