Getting beyond the high-speed rail fiasco


Pbilip Langdon

New Urban Network


Wounds need to be licked — for a little while. But the proponents of fast inter-city rail service now seem to realize that it’s time to regroup and recover rather than continue lamenting the setbacks of the past few months.

Passenger rail still stands a good chance of being expanded and upgraded — if it’s in the right places and is pursued through realistic strategies. That was the sense that emerged Friday during a meeting in New Haven of some 40 rail advocates from New England and beyond.

“The big picture is: rail is on a roll,” said Arthur Guzzetti, vice president for policy of the American Public Transportation Association. Guzzetti was expressing satisfaction mainly with light rail and commuter rail, which, he pointed out, have made a tremendous resurgence over the past three decades. “In 1980 there were seven light-rail systems in the US. Today there are 36,” he said. “In 1980 there were nine commuter rail systems; there are 28 now.”

Can inter-city rail service thrive, too? Participants in the conference, organized by Rail Users’ Network, the Sierra Club, the National Corridors Initiative, and the New England Rail Coalition, expressed optimism that it can — if the mistakes of the last two years are avoided.

“There’s a strong business case for rail. We tend not to emphasize that, to our detriment,” said Richard Arena, president of the Association for Public Transportation. In the future, rail advocates will have to stress the economic benefits of inter-city rail, he suggested.

Had the Obama high-speed rail program been better conceived, it would have focused on connecting pairs of cities that possess high population densities, Arena indicated. Dense “city pairs” — as long as they’re not too far apart — will attract strong business use, he said.

Nearly all the projects that were cancelled in the past several months by four incoming Republican governors exhibited conspicuous flaws. The Ohio line from Cleveland to Cincinnati would have been too slow, according to Arena. The Florida line was in the wrong place. If it had run from Tampa to Miami instead of from Tampa to Orlando, there is “no way” that Governor Rick Scott would have been able to kill it, Arena said.

The ARC (Access to the Region’s Core) tunnel — intended to carry New Jersey commuter trains to and from Manhattan — was “too expensive” and it would have dropped riders off in a poorly chosen location, Arena said. Only the Wisconsin rail line, cancelled by Governor Scott Walker, was killed for “purely political” reasons, he said.

Define the objectives

Rail advocates must define their terms and objectives better, according to Arena, who carefully laid out the differences between “high-speed” and “higher-speed” rail. High-speed rail, in his definition, must have a dedicated right-of-way, a top speed of more than 200 mph, and an average speed of 150 to 200 mph.

To be competitive with air travel — and economic competitiveness is a necessity — any high-speed route must run many trains a day, so that the economic movers and shakers who travel by train never have to wait long, Arena explained. “If you do it right, no subsidizing is required,” and capital costs will be recovered.

Where the right-of-way is shared or has sharper curves, high-speed rail is not feasible. In those situations, “higher-speed” rail — meaning faster than an ordinary train — is the best that can be obtained: service that competes effectively against cars and buses. These trains could achieve a top speed of 110 to 125 mph on some tracks. On lesser-quality tracks, they would achieve a top speed of 90 to 120 mph and an average speed of 70 to 80 mph, according to Arena.

A subsidy may be required for the higher-speed trains, but many participants in the conference pointed out that highways and the air travel system are also subsidized, so this shouldn’t rule out government support of a rail system.

The only genuinely high-speed American line now being planned is in California, and ”that project is in a lot of trouble,” Arena said. It is hobbled by the state government’s dismal finances. “California, if it were a private company, would be functionally bankrupt,” he asserted.

Having received a commitment of more than $2 billion from the Obama administration, California has “enough federal money to go for awhile,” Arena calculated. But the state has managed to sell only $100 to $200 million of rail bonds “at the price they wanted to pay,” he said. That leaves the multi-billion-dollar enterprise in financial jeopardy.

Best bet: Northeast corridor

There’s hope that the Northeast Corridor will get funds for high-speed rail, because that’s where Rep. John Mica, the Republican chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, thinks a demonstration project makes sense, given the high population density. High-speed rail may be installed in the section between Washington and New York, he said. ”There’s no guarantee it’s going to New England,” he added, because the New England states have done little to line up support for it. Indeed, it was suggested, New Englanders act as if they still have Senator Ted Kennedy going to bat for them.

In Boston, one obstacle is the lack of a rail tunnel connecting South Station and North Station. Arena said that in the past, he has gone to Washington to argue for federal funds for construction of a Boston rail tunnel, but “I’ve already told Governor  [Deval] Patrick I’m not going to do it any more.” He noted that Gov. Patrick spent $10 million last year on a rail-to-trail project; “there’s no reason he can’t spend $5 million on a rail link” to show his state’s seriousness about completing the Amtrak connection in Boston. It’s been needed for decades. Where’s the leadership?

James RePass, chairman of the National Corridors Initiative, which helped usher into existence Amtrak’s higher-speed Acela service in the Northeast, urged the six New England states to operate as a group, pursuing infrastructure improvements beneficial to a region that is suffering what he called “slow economic decline.”

New Urban Network asked RePass what he thinks of a recent proposal by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt: enactment of federal legislation allowing higher gasoline taxes to be imposed in the Northeast, with the revenue going to Northeastern rail. RePass replied that “the Amtrak Reform Act of 1998 allows regional authorities.” A regional authority could establish such a tax for that purpose, he said. “Call your governors,” he urged, “and actively say, ‘How about 10 cents a gallon?’”

In any event, Arena said, the advocates of rail “need a wider coalition. We’re going to need a hell of a lot more Republican friends. … They have to know that the people who vote for them want rail as well as roads.”

A cheaper route to New York

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was lambasted by rail advocates in recent months after canceling his state’s commitment to the ARC tunnel. But in the New Haven conference, Christie’s decision was defended by David Peter Alan, chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, a Garden State rail advocacy group.

The project would have cost the enormous sum of $13.5 billion, it was reported. And it would have been 180 feet below ground, terminating in a “stub” on the west side of Manhattan near 34th Street, not on the east side, where many riders want to go, Alan said. “It was not good for the riders.” His organization fought it despite what he said was a united phalanx of business, political, and labor union support for the tunnel.

“We need a more affordable alternative” that will serve commuters better, Alan said. Consistent with that, Joe Clift, a transit consultant and technical director of the Lackawanna Coalition, presented an alternative plan that he said could be carried out for far less money — about $5.6 billion. “It’s the difference between realistic and a pipe dream,” Clift said, comparing his more modest proposal to the ARC tunnel.

Clift’s proposal “represents the new paradigm,” Alan said approvingly, noting that many Americans don’t want to spend “even for highways, let alone rail. We have to be realistic, we have to be frugal.”

‘Not as bad as it seems’

As for US mass transit as a whole, Guzzetti, at the American Public Transportation Association, assured rail advocates that “it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds.” Recent cuts in the current year’s budget by the Republican House of Representatives eliminated money for the tunnel under the Hudson River, but, he emphasized, “there’s no transit system in the country that’s going to see less money” than had been anticipated.

Demand for transit is growing, Guzzetti pointed out. “Ridership has been far exceeding population growth for 15 years running.” High gasoline prices will only make transit service more desirable, he argued. “Now it’s getting to an economic shock point.” Since transit helps employees reach work and other destinations, “We’re talking about a market that will be attractive to business,” Guzzetti said.

“A lot of the negative attacks are orchestrated” by organizations such as the Reason Foundation, Heritage Foundation, and Cato Institute, said Guzzetti, reinforcing a similar observation two weeks earlier by Petra Todorovich, director of the Regional Plan Association’s America 2050 rail initiative. “Funded by who — oil companies?” said Guzzetti. “Maybe. The facts aren’t on their side.”

How much oil are Americans using now? “We burn 28,000 42-gallon barrels of oil every two minutes,” said Molly McKay, transportation chair of the Connecticut Sierra Club, who organized the conference. “Seventy percent of it comes from the transportation sector, most of it from cars and trucks.”