» Penn Design group proposes almost $100 billion investment between Washington and Boston. Amtrak confirms it’s evaluating constructing another Hudson River tunnel.
If you thought California’s more than forty billion dollar plan to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles with high-speed rail was an unreasonably large investment, you’ll be doubled-over by what a University of Pennsylvania student group has proposed for the Northeast Corridor: a $98.1 billion spending spree that would transform America’s most productive region by speeding commutes between Boston and Washington to just 3h15.
The plan advocates the construction of new rail tunnels through downtown Philadelphia and Baltimore, a bypass around Wilmington, and, get this, a twenty-mile tunnel under the Long Island Sound from Ronkonkoma to New Haven. Trains would average 155 mph on the trip. These investments, the students suggest, would be enough to triple ridership on the intercity rail network by 2040. I wouldn’t doubt it.
The problem, of course, is that while the plan is well-documented, beautifully illustrated, and, I’m sure, technically feasible, it stands absolutely no chance of being realized, bar some unforeseen willingness on the part of the U.S. government to drop tens of billions on one program and a multi-state agreement binding the Northeast region’s taxpayers to the construction of the world’s single biggest infrastructure project. I would love to see such ease of transportation between these cities, but in the next twenty years, the most we’re likely to get is Amtrak’s current ten billion dollar plan to speed trains from 6h30 between the extremities of the corridor to 5h30. This in spite of the fact that the Northeast Corridor, with the nation’s highest densities and highest potential train ridership, is theoretically perfect for high-speed rail.
But there are two fundamental obstacles to a significantly improved Northeast Corridor: financial limitations and differences in political interest.
Though the Northeast is an incredibly rich region, it has no capacity to raise sufficient funds to pay for an investment on the scale of what the Penn Studio has suggested. Not only are all the states in a fiscally difficult situation today, but they are underfunding their existing roads, transit, and intercity rail systems. Because the Northeast has some of the nation’s oldest infrastructure, it also has the most pressing maintenance needs. If the region were to suddenly benefit from a massive increase in tax revenues, that money should probably first be spent on making sure the subways and highways are working as they should, no small task.
Just as important, the U.S. government, despite its decision to allocate $10.5 billion thus far to the high-speed rail development program, is handicapped by the fact that it must spread the money across the country. If the Northeast deserves a federal contribution of $50 billion for its high-speed program, the rest of the country will demand another $200 billion for their own needs. Where, exactly, will that money come from? The two-year period in which the U.S. government appeared to be guided by a Keynesian impulse to stimulate the economy through infrastructure creation has come to a definite, and probably premature, end.
Of course, the lack of adequate funds is determined by politics; if they wanted, state leaders could approved tax hikes to pay for far more than just maintenance. They could, for instance, band together to promote a regional gas tax increase. Yet the situation in the Northeast is paralyzed by poor decision-making and an unwillingness to look across state lines for compromise.
For example, the $8.7 billion Access to the Region’s Core tunnel, which will connect New Jersey and Manhattan by 2017, will not include connections into the existing Penn Station complex; this makes it possible for only trains terminating in Manhattan to use the tunnel and fundamentally blocks off Amtrak use of the facility. As a result, the national rail operator is now studying the construction of yet another tunnel under the Hudson River, a consequence of the fact that New Jersey simply didn’t care enough to find a way to share. (Note that Amtrak’s study is far from final; while the tunnel may be needed, there is no funding for the project.)
The Northeast has internalized its decision-making at the state level, refusing to come to clear agreements about where the region’s priorities should be focused. This is partly due to the fact that many of the state capitals are not along the Northeast Corridor itself — Albany, Hartford, Harrisburg, and Annapolis — but also due to the fact that high-speed rail sections through some states may be actually more beneficial to residents of other states. For instance, though the link between New York and Philadelphia runs primarily through New Jersey, its users are primarily not from that state; this makes it outside New Jersey’s political interest to invest in true high-speed rail there.
Thus, one wonders whether the kind of mammoth investments necessary to outfit the Northeast Corridor for true high-speed rail should be prioritized. California and Florida are developing cheaper and far less complicated plans to run fast trains between their biggest cities, and it’s actually possible to imagine that their schemes will come to fruition. They benefit from the fact that each project remains within state borders and California’s voters made a very large $10 billion commitment to actually funding their line, a feat to which no Northeast state has come close.
Similarly, in the Midwest, there’s a relative consensus in thinking that Chicago is the region’s core and that primary rail links should head in and out of there. This has made agreement about where investments should go simpler and explains that region’s relatively advanced plans for intercity rail.
People in the Northeast complain that the federal government’s high-speed rail funding allocations have gone to other regions, but the Obama Administration may have its priorities right. Instead of choosing to throw its funds into the mind-numbingly complex project that is the Northeast Corridor — where even minor improvements cost billions of dollars — it has picked intercity rail programs that will significantly improve service at a lower cost in the short-term. If Northeastern states want to see similar allocations in the coming years, they must get their act together by developing regional funding sources and establishing more lines of agreement.
Image above: Philadelphia alternative alignment proposed by Penn Design Studio, from Penn Design