Organization envisions 17,000-mile network stretching across the country, but its phasing and route plans need work.
More than any time in U.S. history, there is strong, bipartisan support for public investment in expanded rail networks. The momentum behind what may be the country’s next major national project is developing quickly, with states recently applying for more than $100 billion worth of planning and construction programs in corridors throughout the continental 48. The U.S. House’s approval last week of $4 billion in allocations for high-speed rail in fiscal year 2010 alone suggests that the stimulus’ inclusion of $8 billion for train service improvements was only the first step in a decades-long transportation program whose costs may stretch into the hundreds of billions of dollars.
The new U.S. High Speed Rail Association will lobby in Washington for the full implementation of what may be a fifty year project. Run by individuals with backgrounds in architecture, planning, and development, the organization may prove to be an effective force in pushing Congress to approve more funding. Yet the group has yet to make its influence known, and none of its staff appear to have close contact with members of Congress or the White House. Whether it could eventually evolve into a lobbying powerhouse depends on contributions from states and private industry; there are other significant organizations such as the Association of American Railroads and locally-focused groups like the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association that already hold sway in Washington and may play more prominent roles in rail advocacy.
The new association, however, is already pushing an aggressive plan, as illustrated in their proposed network shown above. The proposal would sponsor the construction of 17,000 miles of 220 mph train lines, all electric, to be built out by 2030. The system would reach 44 states and stretch coast-to-coast.
The seriousness of this proposal should be put into question, of course: any organization that claims that it is feasible to ramp up lines in California, Washington state, Texas, Florida, the Southeast, and the Northeast to 220 mph levels by 2015 is fooling itself. California’s ambitious proposal for a starter corridor between San Francisco and Los Angeles won’t open for service until 2018 at the earliest — and it’s the only Express-HSR project in the country that has even partial funding at this time.
Yet the motivation sustaining the development of a national plan is a good one — I pushed my own serious proposal on this blog earlier this year. Yet I am skeptical of some of the USHSR plan’s provisions. Specifically, I question proponents of high-speed rail routes that traverse empty areas of the country. This proposal’s inclusion of links such as those between Boise and Seattle; Salt Lake City and Sacramento; Denver and Kansas City; and Albuquerque and Dallas — each pair of which is more than 500 miles apart and separated by emptiness– stand out as attempts to make the system seem national without providing adequate justification for how these routes would be economically tenable.
Similarly, the organization’s inefficient routing in Texas (a triangle versus the more realistic T-Bone), its adherence to a connection between Boston and Montréal rather than the more reasonable Albany-Montréal link, and its decision to endorse far too many interconnections along the edges of the Mississippi River (such as between Jackson and Dallas; St. Louis and Nashville; and Nashville and Birmingham), suggest that the organization’s idea of a national rail plan involves drawing lines between big cities rather than a measured study of which connections would be most effective in attracting ridership and responding to air and highway congestion.
There is little attempt here to prioritize investment on the most important corridors.
Indeed, it’s worth reconsidering what the criterion behind developing a national plan should be when new proposals such as this one are released. How sturdy are the routes and phasing plan of this proposal? How has the organization determined which lines should be built, and their order?
The website, at least, doesn’t make the answers to those questions very clear.
The background of the group’s proposal is the Regional Plan Association’s metro regions map, produced for its offshoot America 2050. Yet America 2050 has produced its own vision for a national rail network, and it doesn’t match that of USHSR. Shown above, America 2050’s Trans-American Network, in fact, adheres to a strict look at where passenger flows actually are and attempts to address routes that fit the natural advantages of high-speed rail, namely highlighting corridors between big cities 200-500 miles apart. While I have some qualms with the specifics of the Trans-American Network (such as, again, its use of the Texas Triangle, not T-Bone), its vision would focus high-speed rail investment in regional corridors, rather than attempt to criss-cross the mountain west with track, as would USHSR. The two organizations have produced incredibly differing visions of a national rail system, and America 2050’s would be a whole lot of a sounder investment.
America 2050’s phasing plan is irrationally optimistic like that of USHSR, promoting 150 mph+ lines in California, the Midwest, and the Northeast by 2015. It also includes a line — Denver to Albuquerque — that I do not believe should be a national priority.
The greater moral of the story, nevertheless, is that USHSR has a lot more work to do before it can claim to be promoting a reasonable, implementable national rail network. It should be using objective, reliable measures to advocate certain corridors over others, and then recommend their construction to the U.S. DOT, which similarly has a responsibility to establish stronger guidelines for rail investment and must undertake planning for a national network over the next several months. Those steps are necessary as we become more and more serious about high-speed rail in the United States, and as advocacy organizations such as USHSR play a larger role.
Image top: USHSR Network Plan
Images below: Trans-American Passenger Network Plan and Phasing Plan, from America 2050