Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Welcome, North East Corridor, to the High-Speed Rail Party

This may or may not be good news for those of us opposed to high-speed rail in the United States.  The Department of Transportation has identified the Northeast Corridor (NEC) as one of the 11 or 12 (?) high-speed rail corridors.  

I was under the impression that they had always been one of those corridors, inasmuch as that's already when the one-and-only closest thing in the US to high-speed rail operates now; i.e., Acela.  Whatever.

Being declared a corridor by Secretary Ray LaHood after appeals from an array of Democratic Senators representing the participating states, the NEC is now eligible to apply for those tossed-aside $2.4 billion from Florida.  Hello, California. Meet your new competition for those scarce HSR funds!

It never occurred to me that there could be conflict within the Democratic Party which has been so united in it's eagerness for high-speed rail dollars. Could those Democratic Senators from the Northeast states meet with Boxer, Feinstein and Pelosi in an alley behind the Capitol Building to duke it out over those dollars?

Seriously, why isn't this good news?  Because if in California we are happy that HSR dollars will be spent in the NEC, that makes us nothing more than NIMBYs, right?  If HSR is a bad investment in California, isn't it also a bad investment everywhere else in the US?  Actually, that's not such an easy question to answer.  

We have been consistently arguing for the repair, maintenance and improvement of urban and regional public mass transit.  Inasmuch as the NEC is an almost interlocking series of major metropolitan areas, that should qualify under those criteria. 

That of course doesn't mean those trains have to or even can go 200 mph. But there again, questions arise about ridership (just as in California), based on demand and population density. As it happens, the Washington to Boston distance is just about the same 400 miles as the San Francisco to Los Angeles distance.  On all those grounds, HSR has greater justification in the NEC, whereas it makes no sense whatsoever in California. 

John Mica would argue that the NEC is an appropriate corridor for HSR, and he has said he supports it.  But he also has been saying that there has to be a private participation in such development.  And, unless such rail systems can show a profit; that is, real revenue surplus, private investment seems quite unlikely.  

Predicting the future has become harder than ever.  However, if vast amounts of funding are spent building a rail system that remains a major debt burden for the US government forever, it's value has to be seriously challenged.

Either way, a compelling case based on cost/effectiveness would have to be made to justify the building out of the NEC. (That case has already been laid to rest in California.) Amtrak, eager to be on top of this project, has predicted a construction cost of $117 billion.  

Given that this route goes through the greatest span of urban density in the US, it's highly likely that this amount will double or triple once they actually start buying right of way for new track corridors. Very extensive (and expensive) tunneling, like the Boston Big Dig, is not out of the question.  And, we already know of that cost explosion. 

Therefore, it seems to me, that unless the federal government is prepared to provide hundreds of billions of dollars for this enterprise rather than only intending to offer token "seed money" to start something that can't be completed, they should stop their current shenanigans right now,

DoT designates Northeast as a 'rail corridor'

By Keith Laing - 03/15/11 02:26 PM ET

Reversing an earlier decision, the Department of Transportation this week designated the Northeast as a federal rail corridor.

The decision means the Northeast will be able to compete for $2.4 billion in high-speed rail funds that were rejected by Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Lawmakers from the region had pressed the administration for the decision.

“Given the Northeast Corridor's strong track record with high-speed rail and the region's high gross domestic product, improvements to the Corridor's rail service would be a smart investment of Florida's rejected high-speed rail funds,” senators from New Jersey, Delaware and Connecticut wrote this week in a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. 

“We believe that Secretary LaHood's recent decisions are a positive step that will encourage further higher speed rail development along the Northeast Corridor,” they continued. “We will continue to work with the administration to ensure that the Corridor receives its fair share of the available high-speed rail funds.”

The letter was signed by Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.). 

The decision also means the Northeast will be officially designated as one of the corridors in President Obama’s proposed national network of railways. The department initially had said the Northeast did not need the designation because it had already developed railways.

Applications for the $2.4 billion in rail money Florida rejected are being accepted until Apr. 4. 

The Northeast joins 10 other areas of the country in competing for the money, including  California, the Pacific Northwest, the Gulf Coast, New England and the Chicago hub.

The contents of this site are © 2011 Capitol Hill Publishing , a subsidiary of News Communications,