Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Question of High Speed Rail: Concerns

The first of several parts of a series of posts on high-speed rail in the United States.

High speed rail (HSR) is the most important component of Obama's recovery package. Folks all over the country have been crowding town hall style meetings with signs, chanting "No we won't!" at their senators as security tries to escort them out of the room...

Luckily, HSR isn't the hot-button issue of the day. It is a true sign of the bizarreness of government finance when a program that was recently guaranteed $13 billion in funding pales in comparison to the size of other programs.

On its face, HSR sounds like a real no-brainer. Just a few track upgrades and new alignments here, an upgraded station there, and some new rolling stock and voila!, we'll cut carbon emissions, reinvigorate our cities, and save money on gas. In no time, we'll obviate the need for short-haul flights and long-distance car trips between cities.

I have two major concerns about the HSR proposals. Firstly, a massive HSR network seems a lot like the USA buying the proverbial cart before the horse. When announcing his HSR vision, President made the following statement:

“Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination."
(NYT, 4/16/09)

Setting aside how impressed I am that someone close enough to the President managed to write an intelligent statement about sustainable transportation and walkability, there's a major problem here: what public transportation? How many cities in the US have even a marginally good bus, subway, or streetcar system that will be able to "make the connection" to the train? Without first answering this serious question, we risk creating a system based on park-and-rides, or worse, a system that no one uses because they have to get in the car to use it anyway.

My other concern is the sheer cost of the system and the benefit that might or might not result. The preliminary funding is $13 billion - a tally of preliminary proposals by forty states shows that already, there are requests for $103.5 billion in funding from the federal government.
The above map from the Wall Street Journal shows what rail lines "could be upgraded" by the government's HSR program - it makes no claims as to how far the allocation of $13 billion will go and what additional funding may be necessary. And to me, that's very scary.

My main concern with this map and with the costs given is that there seems to be no connection to reality or to hard numbers, and the planning is shaky at best. Will there be enough people traveling between Louisville and Indianapolis to make HSR feasible? Why doesn't the East Coast line connect between Savannah and Orlando? Why is there no connection from Pittsburgh and/or Buffalo to Cleveland???

Visiting family in South Florida made me realize how far existing train lines are from accomodating HSR. It looks easy for the red line on the map to connect Orlando to Miami - there are lots of big population centers along Florida's east coast, and there's already a major train line there. Should be a piece of cake. The problem? The line is already busy with freight traffic, has only one track for a lot of its length, and is chock full of grade crossings. These three things are big road blocks HSR - Amtrak users already know the feeling of being shunted aside and made to wait on a siding because freight traffic has right-of-way. Higher speed traffic is typically prohibited on lines with grade crossings, and eliminating many or all of them would be a gargantuan task. Building a new track through virgin land might be easier, but that will move the trains far from the Atlantic coast, far from where anyone lives, begging again the question of connectivity.

I don't want to denigrate the HSR vision and the factors that motivate it because I think it is all being done with the best of intentions. We are indeed decades behind other developed nations in providing alternative means of transportation, and we need to fix that soon. My worry is that the leadership of the entire program seems faulty, throwing around pie-in-the-sky numbers and "drawing with Sharpies" on maps, with little indication of actual conditions on the ground. If it's not $13 billion, is it $103 billion, is it $200 billion, or what? Would our money be better spent on funding research for a type of long-distance, electric-powered rental car for intercity travel?

In the next few posts, I will delve further into many of these issues, particularly the connectivity problem with regard to local transit.

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