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Biting the Bullet (Train): Moving Forward with “HSR”

Anthony Flint / Oct 14 2011

For Release Friday, October 14, 2011
Citiwire.net

Anthony FlintOne 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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4 Comments

  1. Mike De Blasi
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    The one problem with HSR funding/support compared to the Interstate system is the former is considered foreign and socialist by an entire party whereas no one ever accused that of the latter even though the interstate systemwas partially modeled on the German Autobahn and required massive government spending and turned out to destroy the American way of life that existed at the time it was passed in Congress.

  2. Marc Brenman
    Posted October 15, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    There are many problems with HSR. The columnist should not simply accept the now-known-to-be-wildly-phony estimates and projections by the California HSR authority. The suggestion to take money from federal gas taxes to pay for HSR is ludicrous, since the highway trust fund is largely bankrupt, and there is no consensus on how to replenish it (if it is kept at all). The columnist gets it right that HSR in the US is primarily a long distance commuting system for Anglo, upper middle and upper income people. It has no benefits whatsoever for people of color and lower income people. There is no proof that HSR will create jobs, other than a couple of years of construction ones. It competes with regional jet, so jobs that HSR creates will be ones taken away from regional jet. There are many opportunity costs to HSR– things that would be better to spend money on, like mass transit, which is suffering cutbacks across the country; rural intercity buses; broadband across the country that will reduce road congestion by allowing people to work at home; and rebuilding the electrical distribution grid. Yes, HSR is cute and fun, but should be a low priority compared to other infrastructure needs. If we really want to imitate Europe, let’s adopt a single payer health care system…

  3. Elia Fisher
    Posted October 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    HSR has a plethora of benefits: less environmental impact, larger baggage allowances, reduced energy consumption, and a boost to our national security among the many others. It is a bona-fide investment; spending capital to save money. It’s definitely time we do it.

  4. George Schrader
    Posted October 16, 2011 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    Before Highways, trains made sense but after highways they make no sense at all. My research suggest that our modern society may be standing at the edge of taking its most revolutionary step ever. Modernizing its badly antiquated distribution systems into those vastly more efficient and largely enhanced processes that they are so very capable of reasonably being. Lucratively transforming highways into an automated system which lacks that $1 trillion dollar deficit in accidents and energy of today. Into a much smaller structural undertaking whose dramatically increased efficiencies and abilities will bring transports cost to but a few percents of what we know today. Can we even imagine profitably occupying that idled work force and then incrementally achieving an unprecedented efficiency in our own social and economic processes, and accomplishing all in a manner of forms and processes which are known to be ecologically and environmentally sound? Glsjr03@gmail.com