Why California and the Northeast need High-Speed Rail

California and the northeastern US are perfect for high speed rails. But implementing HSR would be very different processes for each region.

A China Railway High-speed (CRH) Harmony bullet train pulls into the Shenyang Railway Station in Shenyang, Liaoning province July 31, 2012. Holland argues that High-Speed Rail is a viable transportation option in the US, especially in California and the Northeast.

As I wrote recently, I believe that High Speed Rail (HSR) is the best option for linking the country’s major regions together. The past week has seen two major developments in America’s development and deployment of high speed rail.

First, last Friday, the California Senate approved $4.6 billion in funding for the construction of the first section of the state’s HSR. This would allow $3.2 billion in federal stimulus funding to be released to the state. Second, on Tuesday, Amtrak released its updated proposal (pdf) to upgrade its Northeast Corridor (from Washington DC to Boston) to true high speed rail, capable of cruising at 220 miles per hour.

Differences Between California and the Northeast Corridor

The plans for the Northeast Corridor and California are necessarily very different. The NEC would take an ‘iterative’ approach, whereby service is slowly and steadily improved along existing right of ways and along existing routes. This makes sense for the NEC because it is the corridor of the U.S. with the best existing rail service, including the Acela line, which actually approaches internationally-recognized levels of high speed service. Amtrak’s iterative approach — what Amtrak calls “Stair-Step Service Milestones” — would slowly upgrade existing infrastructure and rolling stock over the next two decades, initially focusing on choke points like the Baltimore tunnel (a civil-war era relic) and building a new trans-Hudson tunnel into Manhattan. By 2040, they anticipate that the whole thing will cost $151 billion, but by the end, it could lead to 90 minute rides between New York and both Boston and Washington, with New York to Philadelphia being only 37 minutes apart (close enough to commute).

California, on the other hand, has a very low level of existing rail service. I tried to find a way to get by train from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles, and there simply was no way to do it, without taking multiple buses and switching between local and regional trains. Therefore, it will have to try a ‘big bang’ approach whereby it builds as much as possible as soon as possible. The first link in the line to be built is the Bakersfield-Fresno link, which has been decried by opponents as a “train to nowhere” because these San Joaquin Valley cities are clearly not major metropolitan areas. However, this line is important as a start both because the planning is the easiest (it’s flat, and acquiring land is cheap) and because it would nearly complete the unconnected rail link between Northern and Southern California. The entire project is projected to cost $68 billion by the time it is done — it’s unclear where the balance of the funding will come from, but it will be more difficult to kill it once building has begun. This will link San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours, 40 minutes.

Ultimately, as I wrote yesterday, more transportation options are needed in America’s densely packed regions. High speed rail has the ability to promote dense, urban development over the oil-dependent sprawl-oriented development that has prevailed in the U.S. for the last 50 years. While this type of infrastructure development was appropriate in a world of low gas prices and no environmental problems, in today’s dense urban areas it no longer makes sense. The best part of taking high speed rail, for me — and most other people living in America’s cities — is that it will not require a trip to the airport. Going from Union Station in DC to Penn Station in New York is one of the great parts of living on the East Coast. People living in California and within 500 miles of Chicago should have the same opportunity. That will also promote economic growth and development to happen inside cities — an imperative as the country’s open spaces fill up.

Why Doing Nothing is Not an Option

When opponents talk about the high costs of high speed rail (and they are high), they are comparing it to the cost of doing nothing. But that’s not an option. Building new interstate highways has a cost per mile from $5 million up to beyond $20 million. In California, the state estimates that building the same amount of transportation capacity as the full high speed rail plan in highways and airport infrastructure would cost $114 billion, vs. the projected rail cost of $68 billion. On the East Coast, I suspect the numbers would be similar, or even more disparate, as the land for highway expansion is simply not available.

Finally, a note about what I said in yesterday’s post about my skepticism about the funding model: government funding to government-sponsored companies. I take Amtrak between Washington and the New York area pretty often (my family lives in northern New Jersey) and the level of service and attention to detail drives me crazy. From the 1970s-era cars to the overpriced microwaved food, there is much that can be improved. Even on the few occasions when I travel by the Acela (only when someone else is paying), it’s a better experience, but still doesn’t meet levels I’ve seen when I’ve taken the train in Spain, Japan, or France. That said, it is better than domestic air travel these days, so I’m not sure that outright privatizing of the line would make it better. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Mica has proposed legislation that would privatize Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, and there is some logic to that: this section (the only part of Amtrak that makes money) is used to cross-subsidize the other routes that lose money for every passenger.

William Lind, one of the only conservative activists in favor of rail (he writes for the American Conservative’s Center for Public Transportation) has made a coherent case that the big-government highway-building program of the ‘50s and ’60 undermined the free-market passenger rail companies. In a world where private actors paid the full cost of transportation, I think rail would still win — but until government gets out of the highway and airport business, there must be a role for government in the rail business too.

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