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True High-Speed Rail Would Revolutionize Northeast


July 25, 2010

Two hundred years ago, New York state and city leaped ahead of the rest of the country economically with its construction of a publicly financed intercity transportation project called the Erie Canal.

Today, the city and state are part of a mega-region called the Northeast, which competes with other mega-regions in this country and the world. Is there an intercity transportation project that would allow the Northeast today to gain advantage the way New York state did in 1817?

High-speed rail may be that project. If trains zipped between Boston, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington at average speeds of 160 mph-plus, with local service to smaller cities as well, this would give the Northeast a leg up on Chicago, Seattle or Los Angeles and help it keep pace with London, Shanghai and other world cities that are proceeding with similar investments..

This year 11 states, Washington, D.C. and Amtrak, with New Jersey's NJ Transit acting as the formal applicant, asked the Federal Railroad Administration for $18.8 million to do a study for high-speed rail, encompassing both immediate repair needs as well as an examination of longer-term needs out to the year 2050. This project is an extension of a more basic three-year study by the same coalition that produced Amtrak's Northeast Corridor Master Plan to spend $50 billion to bring the system up to a state of good repair and improve travel times some. You can see these studies at http://www.courant.com/railreport.

Two questions above all hover around these studies: What is truly high-speed rail, and how much to spend on it? To get true high-speed rail, with trains going 180 mph and averaging more than 150 mph, you need a separate right-of-way and new tracks, a difficult thing in the crowded Northeast, not to mention expensive.

There is a plan to do just that, and it's worth looking at to get a sense of what's possible. For a price tag of $98 billion, a graduate planning studio at the University of Pennsylvania, led by Robert Yaro of the Regional Plan Association (where I am a senior fellow) and Marilyn Taylor, dean of the design school at Penn, say a largely separate, new track high-speed rail system could be built between Washington and Boston. It's a plan that, as Daniel Burnham said, has the power to "stir men's blood."

Under this plan, two new dedicated high-speed rail tracks would be built from Boston to Washington. Trains traveling from Washington to New York would take 90 minutes instead of the current top time of 2:45. New York to Boston would be 1:45 instead of 3:30. Ten to 12 trains an hour would travel along the line rather than the current one or two, which would mean you could have a mix of both high-speed intercity and high-speed commuter rail trains. The huge boost in capacity would free up track space for commuter railroads in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston and New York, thus expanding their potential.

True high-speed rail service, the plan estimates, would revitalize center cities, including underperforming ones like Hartford, concentrating growth there, and helping make possible an environmentally friendlier and more pleasant lifestyle. People could use cars less and bicycles and transit more. The plan paints a picture where the Northeast leverages its already extensive investment in mass transit and commuter rail to create a true high-speed system that improves local connections. The estimated cost $98 billion is conceivable.

The plan is appealing in its boldness and apparent feasibility. North of New York City, for example, rather than attempting to carve out new tracks through the existing highly congested Northeast Corridor, the high-speed line would travel east down Long Island and then under Long Island Sound through an imagination-capturing 20-mile, three-tube tunnel to New Haven. From there, it would travel in the median of I-91 and I-84 to Hartford and then on to Boston, thus in one fell swoop obtaining much of the needed corridor for new dedicated tracks. South of New York, a variety of existing rights-of-way would be employed, including upgrading existing passenger and freight corridors.

Virtually all of our competitors in the industrialized world have already built or are planning new high-speed rail systems. Even developing countries, including Brazil, India, Indonesia and Morocco are moving ahead with such projects. But we may not be ready for true high-speed rail. Former Amtrak and New York City Transit president David Gunn gave a convincing pitch in an interview six years ago with me that the nation would be better upgrading its current train service to merely fast speeds, before attempting true high-speed rail.

But we should at least consider it. There is no question in my mind that there is a need and demand for true high-speed rail in the Northeast. Maybe it's time for another great leap forward.

Alex Marshall is a senior fellow at The Regional Plan Association.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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