» No clear source of funds doesn’t seem to concern plan makers. But it’s time for some national decision-making about which lines to prioritize.
If you want clear proof for why we need a national agency to coordinate decision-making about rail route choices in the United States, take Colorado’s $21 billion scheme as evidence.
The Rocky Mountain Rail Authority has conducted a study of potential high-speed rail corridors in Colorado, considering areas as far north as Cheyenne, Wyoming, as far south as Trinidad, and as far west as Grand Junction and concluded that the most reasonable, cost-effective option would be to build two new routes: 160 miles north-south along the I-25 corridor between Fort Collins and Pueblo and 150 miles east-west along the I-70 corridor between Denver International Airport and Eagle.
The suggestion is effectively a shortening of a proposal made last year by several states to connect Denver to El Paso along a 720-mile super-link.
The 18-month long study concluded with a projection of 35 million passengers by 2035, generating about $750 million in annual fare revenues, enough to make up operating costs. No way, of course, will it ever pay back its construction costs. That is, if you ignore the cost-benefit analysis of the project, which the Rail Authority claims proves will produce a 150% return on investment in increased economic activity along the affected corridors.
With proposed average speeds of 90-100 mph between Fort Collins and Pueblo and 60-70 mph between Denver and Eagle, the rail line as planned would be no slow-poke; nor, however, would it provide the kind of very fast travel speeds that make switching from private cars into trains an obvious proposition. The Rail Authority would construct its project in a series of stages: from the airport to Colorado Springs, via downtown Denver, in a $3.3 billion first phase, and from Denver to Summit County (location of many ski resorts) in a $9 billion second phase.
It’s a grand plan — but in no way should it be a national priority. With dozens of potential rail routes competing for federal investment around the country but only $12.5 billion allocated to intercity rail projects thus far, someone’s going to have to decide which programs move forward and which ones don’t. Compared to equivalent projects along the West and East Coasts, the Midwest, and Texas, Colorado’s plan would provide service to far fewer people at a more expensive price. Ridership estimates seem massively out of line with reality: other than Denver, there are no metropolitan areas in the affected areas with populations of more than one million people.
But some in Denver still hope to see a “massive influx” of dollars from Washington for their preferred project.
Unfortunately, because of a federal system that prioritizes state planning over U.S. decisions and because of a Congress whose members have a tendency to promote local interests rather than long-term nationwide goals, Colorado seems likely to continue to receive planning funds for the project, whether or not there’s any hope of the system actually being built. And because high-speed rail is in mode today, more realistic alternatives, such as a $3 billion upgrading of the existing lines for improved standard intercity rail between the affected cities, will likely be ignored.
Whether the money would be better used to keep Denver’s local rail expansion program afloat (the project faces a number of financial difficulties) seems to have been dismissed as an unrelated issue. It’s not. Whether they deny it or not, the proposed Colorado system would compete directly with Denver’s planned East Corridor commuter rail line between downtown and the airport. There simply is not enough traffic to justify both projects.
Today’s U.S. Department of Transportation has demonstrated itself to be a qualified and level-headed sponsor of the national rail program and therefore unlikely to find itself sponsoring a project whose advantages are questionable. But what would happen if Colorado’s senators expect funding for their preferred investment in exchange for their support of something else? What if the President chooses to use high-speed rail as a political tool to win support from voters in this swing state?
In no way do I mean to suggest that there’s something wrong with Colorado looking to increase infrastructure investment within its borders. The Rail Authority’s contention that Colorado taxpayers will have to sponsor 50% of the costs of the line is a refreshing acceptance of the fact that it makes little since to ask the national government for a full rebate. But until the U.S. commits to a full-scale “Interstate Railroad” program that guarantees a source of funding for projects across the country, there will be limited federal dollars for rail — and the government has a responsibility to ensure that the best projects are funded.
We have yet to see a true national high-speed rail plan from the federal government, which has a tendency to resort to generalities like environmental improvement or commute time reductions when discussing how it will prioritize grant distribution. Never has Washington clearly stated that it wants to fund one line over another. And it won’t: it’s a political impossibility when Congress holds such a strong grip on the way executive department decisions are made. This means that impossible projects like Colorado’s will continue to receive planning funding for years to come.
Image above: Rio Grande Zephyr at Denver Union Station, from Flickr user Sideshow Bruce