For Release Friday, October 14, 2011
One of the fastest growing lists in Washington these days may well be the Obama administration initiatives that are under fire or have had to be pulled back. The president banded together the EPA, DOT, DOE, and HUD; the House attempted to strip all funding associated with that coordination. The president vowed action on climate change and air pollution; the EPA postponed tougher boiler and incinerator emissions rules. The president wanted to pivot to a new green economy, to encourage innovation for a post-carbon world, like the Chinese are doing — and instead we have the debacle of Solyndra.
So why should another program that so many love to deride as a liberal, elitist, slightly European idea — establishing a true, high-speed inter-city rail network in the U.S. — be any different? The president started out with over $10 billion dedicated to this grand vision, and last month the Senate penciled in $100 million instead, which might be good for some bridge and track repair. Governors in Wisconsin and Florida famously said “no thanks” to funding for high-speed rail lines emanating from Chicago and Orlando-Tampa respectively.
We’re talking about shutting down government, cutting trillions in spending, worrying about the debt ceiling. So it’s hard to talk about investing in infrastructure — again, like how the Chinese are doing, with 4,000 miles of track including a brisk new line connecting Beijing and Shanghai, about the distance from New York to Chicago. High-speed rail has always been a hard sell in America, and never more so now.
The high-speed rail initiative does need a reset, but it shouldn’t be abandoned, say Petra Todorovich, Dan Schned, and Robert Lane, co-authors of High-Speed Rail: International Lessons for U.S. Policy Makers, published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
The first move, the authors say, is to rethink the idea of spreading high-speed rail all around the country, on the model of the interstate highway system — at least for now. Instead the focus should be on the two markets that have the best chance for success: California and the Northeast Corridor. These are classic distances that are too short to fly and too long to drive. Linking major cities with truly quick trips — Paris to Lyon is under two hours using the TGV — could help jump-start economic development as businesses take advantage of the swift movement of workers and deepen their reach into labor markets.
The two projects are nothing if not ambitious, requiring difficult alignment choices, and staggering price tags — $50 billion for California (approved by citizens in a ballot measure) and about $100 billion for a Northeast corridor replacement of the Acela, using new tracks in Connecticut and Massachusetts. They would create jobs — 450,000 through 2035 in California, according to that state’s HSR Authority, and 44,000 jobs annually over 25 years, plus 120,000 permanent jobs for the Northeast corridor, according to Amtrak.
The next step is to rethink the financing — something that is arguably needed for all federal transportation spending right now, as the reauthorization can gets kicked down the road once again — and management, particularly for the multi-state Northeast Corridor. Begin with consolidating ownership of the Northeast Corridor under a single infrastructure corporation, which can attract private financing, make use of an infrastructure bank, and expanded federal credit assistance programs, the report’s authors say. And while it is not politically palatable, a portion of the gas tax — or perhaps an upstream oil import tax — could be dedicated to more energy-efficient, environment-friendly rail.
Former Interior secretary and Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt, a member of the Lincoln Institute board, has proposed that a gasoline tax surcharge in the Northeast Corridor states could pay for high-speed rail in that region. This alternative has the advantage of explicitly linking the revenue sources to beneficiaries of the system.
The authors’ look at the international experience also made one thing clear: high-speed inter-city rail stations can be wonderful places of activity and economic development; those located in the city center, with zoning for transit-oriented development all around have the best track record of generating economic growth.
There must be connections to bus, subway, and commuter rail, to get passengers on that critical “last mile” to their destinations, if not walkable from the main station. All those steps can contribute to economic development and livability. South Station is adjacent to thousands of square feet of office space, hundreds of homes, and the emerging Innovation District at Fort Point. Imagine if the trip to New York for a business meeting took under two hours.
High-speed rail changes the way we think about distances and regions and how we live, in some fundamental ways. A couple can live in New York, while one partner commutes to New Haven and the other Philadelphia. The idea reinforces the notion of “megaregions,” the collections of major cities as in the Boston-to-Washington corridor, or the Pacific Northwest, or around Chicago — a handy framework for all kinds of synergies, economic, infrastructure-wise, environmental — and, dare we say it, similar to the productive relationship among cities in Europe.
Todorovich, who is director of America 2050], created jointly by the Lincoln Institute and the Regional Plan Association, thinks of high-speed rail as a generational investment. The interstate highway system, she points out, required more than a decade to actually get started after it was first proposed. High-speed rail supporters must consolidate ambitions, clarify goals, and make the benefits clear — if they hope to stay off that list of things not done.
The report — High-Speed Rail: International Lessons for U.S. Policymakers, by Petra Todorovich, Dan Schned, and Rob Lane, can be downloaded free at http://www.lincolninst.edu/pubs/1948_High-Speed-Rail.
Anthony Flint is a Citistates Associate and fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Mass.
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