Tag Archives: Biden

West Coast HSR. Why Not?

Alon Levy did a cool Twitch stream of a nationwide, shovel-ready HSR buildout yesterday. I highly encourage everyone to check out their map.

Sadly, I missed the actual stream. However, I did catch up to some of the comments this afternoon on his tweet. A few of the comments questioned why Alon did not bridge the Cascadia and California HSR networks, to form a single West-Coast HSR. Alon justified their decision by pointing out the low population between Portland and Sacramento.

While the Portland-to-Sacramento corridor is no Blue Banana it is not empty either. The metropolitan areas of Yuba City, Chico and Redding, California and Medford, Eugene-Springfield and Salem Oregon have populations ranging from just shy of 100,000 (Redding) to over 350,000 (Eugene).

The longest distance between any two cities in this strip is that between Medford, Oregon and Eugene, Oregon (166 miles following Interstate 5’s alignment, which the existing freight line between the two cities parallels). The Roseburg-Sutherlin micropolitan area (Roseburg’s population is around 20,000) potentially allows for a stop in between.

Again, while these are not the Korean- or German-level figures that Alon prefers, they are actually greater than the urban populations along Sweden’s Stockholm-to-Malmo high-speed light line. Google Maps shows that the five-times-a-day X2 trains call in eight cities along the 400-mile journey. The most populous city, Linköping, has around 160,000 inhabitants. The other cities on the corridor all have fewer than 100,000 inhabitants. Mjölby (pop: c. 13,000 ), Nässjo (pop: 16, 678) and Alvesta (pop: 8,017) are practically villages!    

Like Sweden, the US is a low-density country, with long-distances connecting highly-integrated metropolises. Furthermore, federal and state governing systems that overweight representation for rural areas mean that any sustained investment in high-speed rail will have to have some distributional equity. Amtrak has never run at a profit: nor should high-speed rail (even though cost control should be pursued to allow for maximal construction). Finally, the existing affordable metros along the corridor could provide an alluring magnet for people (and even firms) trying to escape the high-cost-of-living in the major urban areas of California and Cascadia. This would reinforce ridership.

With these considerations, it seems a corridor with a string of mid- to small-sized metros running between the two target megalopolises, and that effectively “completes” a rail route along the West Coast’s main transportation axis, should make the cut.

Note: I have not studied this extensively, so I’m open to pushback and engagement.

What Biden Needs to Do

Two words: crush COVID

Its killing hundreds of thousands of Americans, costing millions of jobs and separating families everywhere.

Biden knows this. “Our work begins with getting COVID under control,” he said in last night’s victory speech.

Candidate Biden’s 7-point program however, does not deviate much from the current approach being conducted many of the states. It proposes a national mask mandate, guidelines on when to open and close (and how to safely operate) businesses and institutions, and rapid testing expansion. As Commander-In-Chief, Biden additionally pledges to increase PPE manufacturing via the Defense Production Act and to efficiently distribute working vaccines (when the time comes).

While a dramatic improvement over President Trump’s do-nothing approach, the bulk of the plan rests on a combination of behavioral encouragement and at-will testing that has so far failed to stem the virus in most of the competent (i.e. non-denialist) states.

Not only Biden’s legacy but his prospects for re-election (and thus, the survival of American democracy) hinge on suppressing COVID. To do so, he will have to go above and beyond the existing containment approach.

Biden will need to take bold measures to ensure the survival of the Republic. Source: WIkimedia

While social distancing and masking help limit the virus’ spread, they provide no surefire guarantee that infected individuals won’t spread the illness. While mass masking can limit transmission of the disease in public, studies suggest that a substantial amount of spread occurs between members of the same household.

Suppose everyone in the country avoids all non-essential business and dons a mask in public. The million-plus confirmed cases don’t just vanish into thin air. Rather they are largely confined to the abodes they share with their partner or family. Even the most careful patient risks infecting their partner or housemate through prolonged cohabitation in a poorly-ventilated indoor space.

Image by manuel ramirez from Pixabay

Every country that has successfully suppressed COVID has used “central’ quarantines, mandating that positive cases isolate in designated “quarantine” facilities.

As it is, the CDC has 20 quarantine stations for travelers returning from abroad and many hotels lay vacant. While a federally-run quarantine system would be cumbersome to implement, both politically and logistically, it has sound constitutional merit. Biden and his team can release guidelines laying out standard procedures and best practices for states to follow and clarifying the constitutionality of various quarantine practices. They can supplement this with a federal quarantine program for travelers entering the country from overseas.

By publicizing and promoting quarantine policies, Biden and his team can significantly reduce the spread of COVID, to the point where the general public no longer has to socially-distance.

Alternatively, the federal government can enforce quarantines virtually. For instance, Taiwan (which has had the fewest COVID cases of any industrialized country) tracks incoming travelers, during their mandatory 14-day quarantine through cellphone geo-fencing. Such enforcement needs to be done carefully, to avoid infringing on civil liberties. It should be noted that even a seemingly-intrusive cell phone quarantine can increase civil liberty in the aggregate, by shortening or precluding lockdowns that impinge on personal and economic freedom.

Digital technology also plays a role in the second critical element in virus suppression, contact tracing. Each positive COVID-19 test is the tip of an infection iceberg. Unlike influenza, COVID-19 spreads unevenly, with as few as 10 to 20 percent of cases (“superspreaders”) responsible for 80 to 90 percent of infections. The focus of American contact tracing needs to shift from identifying the contacts of each discovered case to deducing which superspreader (or superspreading event) infected the individual, and subsequently testing anyone possibly infected as part of the spread. Such “backwards tracing” ensures that vectors of infection are swiftly tested and quarantined, limiting their potential for public spread. Countries such as South Korea use mobile notifications to warn citizens who may have been in contact with a superspreader. The Center for American Progress has proposed a similar “Surveillance Testing App” (run by a third-party non-profit organization that would guarantee privacy) for the federal level.’

Schematic of a COVID-19 Contact Tracing App. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Finally, Biden will have to work to limit spread between regions. One of the frustrating aspects of America’s fight against the virus is the matter in which states get the virus under control only to be re-infected by visitors from neighboring states. For instance, returnees from South Dakota’s Sturgis motorcycle rally re-introduced the virus to neighboring Midwest states.

To address this issue the federal government would either have to lock down the whole country or impose interstate travel restrictions, limiting travel to and from high-infection states or locations. The former would be more logistically challenging to implement than the latter. Restrictions on inter-regional movement have helped contain the virus in several countries.


Quarantining, backwards tracing and travel restrictions will all require significant coordination of federal and state resources. All three strategies are likely to face political pushback. Biden should make clear that these measures are the ONLY way we can shorten lockdowns that have separated families and hurt the economy.

When Biden’s efforts pay off, he might be able to show even the most dogged Trump supporter that his presidency works for everyone.