The Obama administration has demonstrated its support for high-speed rail… but does it know which corridors to fund?
The economic stimulus package, as we all know, included $8 billion dedicated to high-speed rail, as well as $1.3 billion for Amtrak, some of which can be spent on upgrades to the Northeast Corridor, which it owns. But after the nonsensical Republican argument that the money had been added simply to benefit a proposed Las Vegas-Los Angeles project because of the power of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), the Department of Transportation is going to have to decide which specific high-speed rail projects will receive the money. Several weeks ago, I delved deeply into the question of which corridors most merited high-speed rail on the transport politic. But the Federal Railroad Administration has been designating lines for high-speed service for more than a decade now. Below is a map showing those proposed lines overlaying existing Amtrak (and VIA) service, as well as red gradients indicating relative population of America’s metro areas.
Much of the discussion thus far on which corridors will benefit from high-speed rail have focused on the FRA’s designated corridors, with the assumption that most of the money would go to them. Importantly, the bill doesn’t specify that, rather saying that funds can be distributed by the DOT to the designated corridors, but also to lines that have yet to be included in state or federal plans. This is good news, because a high-speed rail network based on that currently proposed by the FRA would be in some ways a poor investment. Below is a map summarizing where the FRA plan fails, both in terms of including low-performing routes and in terms of missing out on a number of excellent opportunities for rail service.
The clearest problem with the map is that it isn’t up-to-date on California’s high-speed rail plans, and includes a segment along the coast that would be environmentally disasterous, poorly used, and expensive to build. The map also includes a number of lines that simply aren’t well considered: a line from Dallas to Little Rock, through Texarkana, a line from Atlanta to Jacksonville, and one from Raleigh to Columbia, all of which would likely attract disastrously few riders. The FRA also misses out on a number of opportunities that make a lot of sense: connecting Houston to the rest of the Texas network; Jacksonville to Orlando and Tampa to Cape Coral in Florida; Ft. Collins to Pueblo in Colorado; Louisville to Nashville; Cleveland to Pittsburgh; Detroit to Toledo; Savannah to Charleston; and Albany to Montréal. These lines – which would fill a number of gaps – probably aren’t included because FRA’s map does not represent a truly national system. We have $8 billion to use for American high-speed rail, and that money ought to be used most efficiently; to argue that FRA’s high-speed corridor designations are based on considered thought about what would make the best national network would be to pretend that our federal government was thinking nationally. Unfortunately, so far, it hasn’t been doing so. Final decisions about where the high-speed funds will be spent will not be made until May at the earliest; we better hope that DOT Secretary Ray LaHood is smart enough to know that his agency’s designations are not necessarily representative of the best policy for investing in American rail.