Amtrak High-Speed Rail Northeast Corridor

Amtrak Unveils Ambitious Northeast Corridor Plan, But It Would Take 30 Years to be Realized

» Unfunded, $117.5 billion proposal would speed trains from Boston to Washington in just 3h23. Amtrak wants a full new corridor along the entire line, including a new inland route through Connecticut.

After months of sitting on the sidelines as states and regional agencies promoted major new high-speed rail investments, Amtrak has finally announced what it hopes to achieve over the next thirty years: A brand-new, 426-mile, two-track corridor running from Boston to Washington, bringing true high-speed rail to the Northeast Corridor for the first time.

The report, released today at a press conference in Philadelphia, suggests investing $4.7 billion annually over the next 25 years on the creation of a route that would allow trains to speed between New York and Washington in 96 minutes and between New York and Boston in just 84 minutes. The line would run along a corridor that could stretch in new tunnels under the city centers of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, and along new rail rights-of-way through Connecticut. New stations would be built in every city the project would serve. This Next-Generation High-Speed Rail, as Amtrak is calling it, would produce overall average speeds of about 140 mph by 2040 (top speeds of 220 mph), compared to 75 mph today. It would undoubtedly significantly expand the mobility of residents of the Northeastern United States.

Amtrak claims that once in operation the line could produce an annual profit of almost $1 billion a year (in 2010 dollars), increasing overall intercity rail ridership along the corridor from about 12 million today to 38 million by 2050. Total construction costs would be $117.5 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars, or $42 billion in 2010 dollars, about the same as the California High-Speed Rail project.

But it is worth being skeptical of the political chances for the project’s implementation. The timing of the plan’s release could not be much worse. With anti-rail and austerity-focused Republicans likely to retake control of the U.S. House of Representatives in this fall’s elections and little serious talk of increasing funds for fast train projects in the immediate term at the national level, a vast increase in capital financing for Amtrak is hard to imagine.

Amtrak has rarely publicly advocated for such a major investment. Last year, the publicly owned agency’s vision for the Northeast Corridor suggested $10 billion in upgrades producing a 5h30 total trip time between Boston and Washington. Today’s announcement is of a completely different magnitude, but it falls in line with the agency’s recent push to operate true high-speed lines in places like Florida.

The proposal is even larger than that suggested by a University of Pennsylvania planning group earlier this year, which I dismissed as mostly unrealistic, thanks to its grandiose proposal for a new tunnel under the Long Island Sound and a new corridor through Center City Philadelphia. Yet Amtrak’s management clearly thinks there is a possibility of major investment here, which is why this new program would not only build that new tunnel under Philadelphia, but also connect New York’s Penn and Grand Central Stations and involve the construction of an entirely new greenfield route through much of the region.

The fact that the Congress has thus far only committed $10.5 billion total to high-speed rail projects across the country does not seem to have fazed anyone in Amtrak management, though it may have resulted in the decision to propose spreading out spending over a 25-year period, rather than, for instance, building it all in ten years. Under the plan, the sections from Baltimore to Wilmington and from Philadelphia to New Rochelle would be completed by 2030, with the rest done by 2040.

Amtrak will need a massive and long-term commitment from the federal government to make this project possible. It will have to find a way to build a coalition between Republicans and Democrats on the matter, since each party will inevitably be in power at some point over the next thirty years. It will have to make a strong case for why investing in the system fulfills national objectives. In the report, it is clear that the agency hopes to portray the Northeast’s strong contribution to the overall U.S. GDP as one of the primary reasons to invest in infrastructure there.

There are therefore long odds for this scheme, but that does not mean it is without merit. In order to implement truly high-speed rail in the Northeast, there is basically no choice but to commit to the construction of an entirely new corridor, since the existing tracks are already mostly at capacity surrounding the major metropolitan areas. Upgrading them could cost as much or more as building from the ground up.

And Amtrak understands the value of building the new line in terms of interconnections with the existing network. Under the service plan suggested in the report (shown below), trains from the southern part of the new corridor could run through along the existing Coastal Corridor in Connecticut and Rhode Island; similarly, trains coming from Harrisburg along the existing Keystone Corridor could interline with the new route at Trenton.

Amtrak will have to assemble major political force behind this project to see it through. This will not be a simple project, either from a funding or construction standpoint. But for the nation’s densest and most economically productive region, it may be the best way forward.

Images above: Amtrak’s proposed routing for its new high-speed rail service, from Amtrak

Charlotte Finance Light Rail Seattle

When the Recession Strikes, Little Maneuvering Room for Better Transit

» Seattle’s large rail expansion program will be delayed thanks to a decline in local tax revenues. The sales tax comes back to bite.

The recession has not been kind to transportation agencies anywhere in the country. The loss of local revenues from dedicated taxes has in many places required agencies to reduce bus and rail operations — even with the significant aid that accompanied the 2009 Stimulus bill. But long-term consequences have been even more problematic for the hundreds of expansion plans either under construction or planned; in metropolitan areas from Dallas to Denver, previously funded projects have been put on hold.

Seattle’s Sound Transit is the most recent to announce its own problems: Last week, the agency revealed that its fifteen-year estimates for revenue collection established just two years ago would be 25% lower than expected. This means that a once $18 billion proposal to extend the region’s light rail system to the north, east, and south would have to be truncated by $3.9 billion, up from a $3.1 billion shortfall predicted just six months ago.

Though the region’s construction programs already in construction and in advanced planning — University Link and East Link, respectively — remain on schedule, a further extension of light rail facilities south into South King County past 272nd Street has been put on hold. A new transit investment in the region’s northern corridor (past Northgate) may no longer come in the form of light rail but instead in something less expensive, like improved buses. The creation of a new commuter rail link along the east side of the region has been suspended (though that project was to be funded primarily by private funds, so it could still be moved forward). All this in spite of the fact that Sound Transit has been able to literally quadruple ridership over the last ten years thanks both to the implementation of light rail beginning last year but also the improvement of regional bus and commuter rail services.

Seattle should comfort itself in the realization that despite all of these cutbacks, it is in a much better situation than cities elsewhere in the country. Example number one: Charlotte, whose countywide transit expansion program was revealed in the late 1990s and whose first light rail line has had high ridership, is facing a virtual shutdown in new construction because it has rightfully chosen to prioritize keeping its bus services afloat over spending on rail expansion.

Most cities have been especially affected by the recession because of their reliance on the sales tax to provide revenue. Of the recent referendums on transit expansion programs, almost all have involved a 1/2 cent or one cent increase in that tax; few cities have looked to other forms of revenue, like an income tax or a payroll tax. The consequences of this decision, however, have been devastating because sales tax revenues have fallen considerably as a result of the recession and the reduced standard of living experienced by the majority of Americans over the past few years. A more stable financing program for transit, using other forms of taxation, would ensure that planned projects actually get built.

The practically universal reliance on the sales tax is a “realistic” response to the sense that it is the most politically palatable form of taxation available. Because municipalities and regional entities are interested in producing stable coalitions in favor of transit expansion, they are required to institute revenue devices that are both regressive and unstable. That’s often because the business community — powerful in every area — is opposed to more progressive forms of taxation that threaten the salaries of their top executives. For many politicians, a sales tax is the most reasonable way to go about increasing funding. In addition, in many states, the idea of a special local or regional income tax is simply out of the question.

For cities like Seattle and Charlotte, what follows in an inability to proceed on schemes that were developed just a few years ago. But perhaps these cutbacks are simply the name of the game; it’s not like an increase in revenue through an income tax is even much of a feasible possibility.

Thus the current enigma: Should cities that had large transit ambitions scale them back due to having less money than once expected, or should they push for new revenue sources? The first option could be difficult to reconcile in the eye of the average citizen who voted for a sales tax increase on the assumption that he or she would experience significant improvements in transit service as a result. The second option seems unlikely to be supported by voters who are being asked to pay twice for something they were told could be accomplished after the first tax alone.

This situation puts transit agencies in a bind since they now appear as if they lied to the public when they promised certain amounts of spending during previous referenda. A more honest assessment of their travails would recognize that budget predictions are always predictions and nothing more; the severity of the recent recession was not something that was planned. Nonetheless, the public is rarely particularly sympathetic to the difficulties of government agencies.

Update, 28 September: I have updated the information about to reflect the state of the projects a bit more specifically.

Image above: Proposed entrance to the University of Washington Link Station, from Sound Transit

Congress Elections High-Speed Rail Intercity Rail

Republican Wave Could Spell Trouble for High-Speed Rail Projects from Coast to Coast

» With governorships up for grabs in most of the nation’s states, local support for more spending on infrastructure could be eliminated.

Intent on demonstrating their resistance to virtually all of President Obama’s policy objectives, Republicans nationwide have staked out an anti-rail position that they hope will stand out as the fiscally reasonable choice when they present themselves in this fall’s elections. Though the current Democratic administration will remain in power at least until early 2013, shifting control of Congress and potential power changes at the state level could dramatically reduce the ability of the Department of Transportation to advance its plans for the development of intercity rail.

Current polling suggests that Republicans are likely to do well in November across the country. The GOP has been leading the charge against high-speed rail since the program was first announced in February 2009.

Most problematic are the governorships, up for grabs in 37 of 50 states this year. Though the majority of recent spending on new intercity rail projects has originated at the federal government, the U.S. DOT is now requiring that state applicants agree to fund at least 20% of construction costs in order to receive a federal contribution. States will also be responsible for most operations expenses.

If Republican-led state governments are unwilling to commit to spending their own dollars on these projects, they simply will not be built. Since intercity rail projects are long-term investments, even if the federal government has already agreed to sponsor some investments, the takeover of a governor’s mansion by an anti-rail Republican could mean putting a full-stop in infrastructure development. As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s announcement last week of a work stoppage on the ARC tunnel project shows, this could affect even projects that have already entered the construction phase.

As the table below demonstrates, the current difficulties of Democratic candidates puts in doubt almost every project that has thus far been allocated significant capital funding from Washington. Current polling is based on analysis by political blog Campaign Diaries.

Where U.S. High-Speed Rail Projects Stand
StateAmount Received from US DOT (million $)Current PollingGOP Candidate Position on HSRDem Candidate Position on HSR
Illinois1240Lean GOPSupportsSupports
Wisconsin822Lean GOPOpposesSupports
North Carolina545n/an/an/a
Ohio400Lean GOPOpposesSupports
New York151Strong DemUnclearSupports
Massachusetts70Lean DemOpposesSupports
Connecticut40Likely DemUnclearSupports
Michigan40Likely GOPUnclearUnclear
Iowa17Lean GOPUnclearSupports

Most directly threatened are projects in Wisconsin and Ohio, where Republican candidates have been waging an all-out war on high-speed rail, calling it a major waste of taxpayer funds. In both states, Republicans have suggested that they would shut down projects because they do not want state taxes to be used to subsidize operations on relatively low-speed rail systems. And those individuals are poised to win in November.

In California and Florida, both of which are proposing full-scale true high-speed networks, GOP candidates have suggested that they too would disrupt completion of their respective projects. Meg Whitman, running as the Republican candidate in California, has said shebelieves the state cannot afford the costs associated with high-speed rail due to our current fiscal crisis.” These races are currently rated as a tossup, just as likely to go Democratic as Republican. The current governors of California and Florida — both moderate Republicans — have been in recent years sponsors of rail investment, but they aren’t likely to pass on that view to their successors, even if they share political stripes.

In all four states, the Democratic candidate has been a proponent of increased intercity rail investment. States where Democratic candidates are expected to win — including New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut — can be expected to continue their promotion of local funding for rail. States in which there is no gubernatorial race this year, such as Missouri, North Carolina, Washington, and Virginia, are unlikely to diverge from their current pro-rail stances.

But states are just one part of the equation.

Just as problematic is the possibility of a shift of control in Congress, which must approve any federal government spending on rail programs. Though Democrats in power in the House of Representatives and the Senate have agreed to large contributions for the infrastructure effort, GOP Senators have thus far been unwilling to compromise on their distaste for government spending. Though the Senate is unlikely to shift hands, the almost certain decline in the current Democratic majority will mean further difficulties in getting new spending approved, such as President Obama’s proposed $50 billion down-payment in rail and highways.

The possibility that the majority in the House of Representatives could shift to the GOP column — more likely than a change in control of the Senate — is incredibly threatening to the agenda of promoting intercity rail as well, since the House must of course also approve any government spending.

For proponents of intercity rail development, election 2010 will not bring positive change.

Automobile Bikes Paris Washington DC

Washington’s Capital Bikeshare Launches, Bringing Biggest-Yet System to the U.S.

» Nation’s first modern bike sharing city replaces its fleet. Program could bring dramatic change to one of the nation’s more vibrant inner cities.

When Washington’s SmartBike DC system began operating in 2008, the city was doing something no U.S. municipality had yet attempted: Betting that locals and tourists would excitedly jump onto public bicycles, encouraging the growth of a transportation mode that has too often been left behind by automobile-oriented planners.

Unfortunately, that bet failed to come through: The system was never frequently used, with an average of only about one hundred daily riders. For those of us used to using bike sharing networks, there were good explanations for the system’s difficulties: It was confined in too small of an area; it only offered about 100 bikes total; and it only had ten stations. European standards, grounded in model schemes in Lyon, Barcelona, and Paris, suggested that the most promising systems were those with thousands of bikes spread out over whole sections of the city. Fortunately, Washington didn’t have to use public funds for the ad-sponsored SmartBike project.

But the city’s progressive leadership learned its lesson and has launched Capital Bikeshare, a network that will soon feature 1,100 bikes that will be accessible from 114 stations in the District of Columbus and Arlington County, Virginia, just across the river. The network opened today with 49 operating stations and 400 Bixi bikes imported from Montréal’s successful program. By the end of the year, the system will be the largest in the United States. Moreover, if it receives a federal government TIGER grant this fall, it could feature more than 3,500 vehicles throughout the region by next year.

I argued earlier this summer that bike sharing may be technically difficult to implement in American cities thanks to their monofunctional job centers; in addition, Washington’s network specifically may suffer because of the lack of density planned for the first phase of stations, which could cause difficulties for average riders.

Nonetheless, will Capital Bikeshare “change everything,” as local website Greater Greater Washington proclaimed this morning? It all depends on what kind of expectations we have for this system.

Despite what is often said about investments in bike sharing, the program is unlikely to dramatically reduce rates of automobile use in the nation’s capital. A review of similar systems suggests that only five to ten percent of trips made on public bikes would have otherwise been made by car. Indeed, the vast majority of travel replaces transit or walking trips. This means that from the standpoint of reducing carbon emissions or eliminating traffic, bike sharing doesn’t seem likely to produce many significant benefits directly.

On the other hand, the systems seem to be increasing the mobility of their users dramatically. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that if most of the riders otherwise would walk or take transit, they don’t possess or cannot afford automobiles. For the District of Columbia, this represents quite a large share of the population: 35.5% of households, according to the most recent Census estimates. In some cases, this means bikes provide more direct transportation than existing transit; in others, it means bike sharing can serve as one part of a multi-modal trip, perhaps replacing slower walking. About 70% of travel on existing systems are to and from work, so the bikes are not being used mainly by tourists.

For non-work trips, bike sharing can play a very important role in the life of a city’s residents by providing fast travel without forcing them to keep their vehicles with them at all times. This reduces the fight for parking in popular places experienced by both bikers and drivers, and it eliminates a fear that someone will steal one’s vehicle — in bike sharing not a problem for any individual, since the system is public. (Of course, there are cases of vandalism, but that affects the system, not the user.) In addition, it encourages freedom of movement throughout the city for people who have previously been constrained by sometimes limited bus and rail routes.

What studies thus far have failed to demonstrate is whether the presence of bike sharing system prevents the future purchase of cars by users. It is quite possible that the option to use a bike in most places in the city decreases the demand for automobiles for people who are looking for an easier way to get around. The more extensive a system is, likely the greater this effect.

For the city in general, though, bike sharing’s biggest advantages may come from the fact that it prioritizes biking as an acceptable mode of travel. The installation of bike docks at hundreds of prominent intersections throughout the region promotes the idea that just like cars, which get parking on every block, cycling has an important role in the broader mobility system.

Image above: Capital Bikeshare Station at Dupont Circle, still without bikes (but in front of SmartBike DC station), from Flickr user DC9T (cc)


Weekend Links

» This week’s big news. Open thread in the comments.

Follow my Twitter account (@ttpolitic) to get news in real time.

The Transport Politic

Bus Rapid Transit in San Francisco’s East Bay, on Next American City

California and Its Friends

  • With the November elections in the U.S. likely to be difficult for generally pro-high-speed rail Democrats, the likelihood of increasing federal funding for the transportation mode over the next few years is depressingly low, putting in peril California’s plans for a $45 billion network of fast trains linking all of the state’s major cities. This in spite of increasing evidence that high-speed rail provides serious economic benefits.
  • Foreigners, however, may be coming to help. Last week, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger traveled to Asia and received commitments for aid from both Japan and China. Each pledged significant loans for the project, even as China continues its domestic rail expansion; it announced that it would have 13,000 kilometers of high-speed rail in operation by 2012 and 16,000 kilometers by 2020.
  • Siemens, which is intent on selling its Velaro trainsets to U.S. customers including California and Florida, will be shipping an example model to the latter state. In California, especially if Asian countries step in to help finance that project (Germany has made no such agreement), Siemens may face competition from Chinese and Japanese manufacturers.

Everyone Else

  • Houston continues to face the negative consequences of its decision to award a contract to a Spanish company to build light rail trains for its planned transit network. That deal, which included the construction of several example vehicles in Spain rather than the U.S., was called out as in violation of federal “Buy America” rules by the Federal Transit Administration. This will delay the completion of the North, Southeast, and East End corridors, once expected to be done by October 2013 but now at least a year late.
  • Germany may finally be lifting its 79-year ban on domestic intercity buses, which it has had in place to ensure the stability of its national rail system.
  • Charlotte, which has had a major transit expansion plan on the table for more than a decade, runs into major cost limitations thanks to the effects of the recession. This means that the city and its suburbs will have to duke it out over the next few years to determine which lines will be prioritized and how to find more funding.

Image above: CAF light rail train such as was planned for Houston, from CAF