HSR Pie in the Sky (Or on the Ground)?

As a nation, we pretty much stopped thinking big and bold a half-century ago, after Apollo 11 landed American astronauts on the moon. Our politicians fight along party lines over matters such as how much we need to invest in maintaining our basic infrastructure (we need a lot), whether climate change is real (it is), whether a fundamental right like voting in a free and fair election should be stifled by state governments (it shouldn’t), whether The Donald lost the 2020 election (he did), or whether the Jan. 6 siege on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of (you fill in the expletive; I’m trying to be somewhat polite) needs a formal investigation by a Congressional commission (it does) . These should be no-brainers, but there are too many small-thinking, small-brained legislators whose mediocre intellects can’t see beyond the next election. Yes it’s true: The mediocre are always at their best.

During the past few weeks, three HSR grand plans have surfaced, one each in Southern California, Illinois and the Northeast. The combined cost will probably be in the hundreds of billions. These plans do, without a doubt, come from the minds of big-thinkers, people who want to see this nation build passenger rail systems worthy of the 21st century that compare evenly with systems already in service across Europe and Asia. The arguments behind these plans have been made for at least 35 years, and they are no less valid today than they were back in the day.

In fact, I’d say they’re more valid.

The problem, as I see it, is that the people who lack vision and passion far outnumber those who do. And that’s why, sadly but realistically, these projects will probably never see a shovel in the ground. At best, we may only see elements of them in place, with token investments.

I sincerely hope I’m proven wrong. 

Here are the three grand ideas, in press releases and a newspaper story, verbatim They are all good. Systems like them are already in service around the world—just not here. 

Illinois

The Illinois legislature has sent Gov. J.B. Pritzker a bill that would create the High-Speed Railway Commission. It would be tasked with developing a “statewide plan for a high-speed rail line and feeder network connecting St. Louis, Missouri and Chicago, Illinois, that includes current existing Amtrak and Metra services, connects the cities of Rockford, Moline, Peoria and Decatur, and uses inter-city bus service to coordinate with the rail line.”

“The commission will provide a forum that the Illinois Department of Transportation can use to go from its current wish-list of projects to a true, statewide plan,” said Rick Harnish, executive director of the High Speed Rail Alliance. “HSRA has been an advocate for creating this commission for more than three years. This is a major step forward for our alliance and for the nation.”

HSRA envisions a plan that would modernize intercity and commuter trains, transit systems and buses — and integrate them into a connected network, with a 220-mph high-speed trunk line to tie the statewide network together.

“We are far past diminishing returns from investing in highways,” Harnish said. “They are a big expense for drivers, cities and municipalities, and there’s really no way to improve on that system. Trains could be a game changer. People could stay where they are and still earn a living. Companies like Caterpillar and ADM would still be here.”

The alliance, which initiated and helped draft the bill, says that, when done right, with other railroads, roads and walkways going over or under the tracks, high-speed rail is twice as fast as driving and more convenient than short flights. 

“The timing of the legislation is opportune, with the Biden Administration pushing hard for more rail funding and travel rebounding as the country emerges from the pandemic,” said Joseph P. Schwieterman, Director, Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development DePaul University. “Forming the commission gives the high-speed rail movement added momentum and greater opportunity to build the intergovernmental collaborations needed to move complex projects forward.”

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford, and Rep. Marty Moylan, D-DesPlaines.

“Investing in a high-speed rail network gives people new options for traveling quickly and safely across the state,” Stadelman said. “With that comes economic growth, which is why connecting Rockford to Chicago though rail has always been one of my top priorities.”

Stadelman credited Harnish and the High Speed Rail Alliance “for helping develop and pass this legislation, which ultimately will provide a statewide masterplan to modernize rail travel and carry Illinois far into the future.”

Rep. Moylan points out that high-speed rail is also an essential element on the path toward a clean-energy economy.

“We must look toward a future where the jobs we create are moving us forward to  a cleaner environment,” he said. “High-speed rail is a significant leap forward in that direction. A statewide network that feeds into the high-speed backbone will significantly increase the ridership and make the tired rail network more cost effective for passengers. Growth in the passenger rail system relieves the burden of cars on the highway system, removing the volume of cars from the highways and decreasing the carbon dioxide burden on the climate. And while it is doing that, it will help tie the state of Illinois and its people more tightly together, becoming a force for uniting the urban north with the rest of our great state.”

The law requires the commission’s plan to include a ridership study, findings and recommendations concerning a governance structure, frequency of service and implementation. An annual report would go to the General Assembly and the governor no later than December 31st of each year.

“This legislation is an essential step toward development of a safe, efficient, and environmentally sustainable 21st-century transportation system for Illinois,” said Christopher P.L. Barkan, Professor and George Krambles Director, Rail Transportation and Engineering Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Such a system will fundamentally transform Illinois citizens’ mobility and bolster the state’s economy. It will also transform our higher education system by enabling fast, convenient travel between the three University of Illinois campuses. Beyond the educational benefits, this will also support the objectives of the University’s Design Partners Institute. I hope the Commission will soon get underway and quickly complete their efforts so the real work of planning, design and construction can begin.”

The commission will be composed of appointees by the governor, the four top leaders in the General Assembly, the Transportation secretary, chairs of the Illinois State Toll Highway 

Authority, Interstate Commerce Commission and Metra board of directors, the Chicago mayor, a rail workers union, a rail-industry trade group, the Metropolitan Mayors and Managers Association, Illinois Railroad Association, the University of Illinois System, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the Illinois Municipal League, the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District and regional planning agencies from the Rockford, Bloomington and Metro East (St. Louis) areas. The commission is authorized to work from the bill’s signing through 2026. 

Northeast

Congressman Tom Suozzi (D-Long Island, Queens) led 22 Members of Congress from the states most affected in an urgent call to authorize the North Atlantic Rail Corporation (NARC) to receive federal funds to design, build, and oversee a high-speed rail (HSR) project across the Northeast. The first of its kind, the bold and forward-thinking project would increase frequency and reliability of travel across the region, while fueling economic growth, creating thousands of jobs for decades to come, and reducing carbon emissions.

The letter, backed by influential Members of Congress such as Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, and Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark, represent a large bloc of elected officials from the seven states affected who believe now is the time for Congress to act urgently and authorize the building of high-speed rail across the Northeast. 

“Now is the time to authorize this massive high-speed rail project which will not only dramatically improve the quality of life and economy of the seven states affected, it will also produce an enormous numbner of jobs,” said Suozzi. “With infrastructure talk happening in Washington every day, now is the time for a big, bold investment in a high-speed rail that will further economic prosperity in the Northeast for years to come. It’s on all of us in the Northeast to build a coalition and do all we can to make high-speed rail a reality.”

“We are writing to request that you and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee strongly consider the inclusion of authorization for North Atlantic Rail Corporation (NARC), in the surface transportation reauthorization.  This authorization will be the delivery vehicle for the North Atlantic Rail (NAR) Network, a bold transportation infrastructure project under consideration for the New York/New England region. The North Atlantic Rail Network will be the nation’s first integrated high-speed, high-performance and regional rail network, serving the seven-state New York/New England region. It can serve as a prototype for new 21st-century rail networks in the nation’s other megaregions,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter.

Regional stakeholders who support this letter led by Suozzi includes New York Laborers; North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters; Long Island Association; Windham Chamber of Commerce; The Rauch Foundation; A Better City; The Providence Foundation; Pawtucket Foundation; Metro Hartford Alliance; Stony Brook University; Central Connecticut Chambers of Commerce; Rhode Island Building Trades.

The North Atlantic Rail’s proposal would create a new 100-minute HSR service between New York City and Boston, using both existing publicly-owned rail and utility corridors and new rights-of-way. Drastically reducing travel times, the rail project would increase frequency and reliability of travel across the Northeast. For Long Island, it will include a new high-speed rail line from Ronkonkoma to Penn Station, a tunnel-line from Ronkonkoma to New England across the Long Island Sound; modernization of LIRR Main Line to Riverhead and Oyster Bay Branch, and the creation of 4 new stations in the Bronx. Regionally, stations would also be located at all of the mid-sized cities and suburban centers, along with new stations serving major universities and research institutions adjoining the corridor.

The letter was signed by U.S. Representatives Tom Suozzi (NY), Richard Neal (MA), Gregory Meeks (NY), Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (NY), Katherine Clark (MA), John Larson (CT), Seth Moulton (MA), Jim Himes (CT), David Cicilline (RI), Stephen Lynch (MA), Ritchie Torres (NY), Chris Pappas (NH), Kathleen Rice (NY), Jim Langevin (RI), Jake Auchincloss (MA), Peter Welch (VT), Grace Meng (NY), Jim McGovern (MA), Bill Keating (MA), Annie Kuster (NH), Chellie Pingree (ME), Ayanna Pressley (MA), and Lori Trahan (MA).

A breakdown of reduction in travel time between major High Speed Rail posts across the region:

  • New York City to Boston, Massachusetts: Travel time would be reduced to 100 minutes. Currently, travel time from New York City to Boston via train averages around four hours.
  • Jamaica, Queens to New York City: Travel time will be reduced to 10 minutes. Currently, travel time from Jamaica Queens to New York City via train averages around 30 minutes. 
  • Jamaica, Queens to New Haven:  Travel time will be reduced to 36 minutes. Currently, travel time from Jamaica, Queens to New Haven via train averages around 2 hours. 
  • New York City to New Haven, Connecticut: Travel time would be reduced to 46 minutes. Currently, travel time from New Haven to New York City via train averages around 94 minutes.
  • Hartford, Connecticut to New Haven, Connecticut: Travel time would be reduced to 18 minutes. Currently, travel time from Hartford to New Haven via train averages around 53 minutes.
  • Springfield, Massachusetts to Boston, Massachusetts: Travel time will be reduced to 97 minutes. Currently, travel time from Springfield to Boston via train averages around 148 minutes.
  • Springfield, Massachusetts to Providence, Massachusetts: Travel time will be reduced to 70 minutes. Currently, travel time from Springfield to Providence via train averages around 5 hours.

Southern California

(From the San Diego Union Tribune; story by Joshua Emerson Smith. This story quotes several of those small-thinking types I mentioned.)

San Diego’s high-speed rail plan hinges
on urban density as population growth wanes

Two hundred miles of high-speed rail carrying electric trains moving twice as fast as the region’s trolley system. A dozen new stations, including massive hubs near the downtown airport and the Tijuana border. 

That’s the backbone of a recently released $160-billion blueprint aimed at making public transit as fast as driving a car — which elected officials from across the San Diego region [discussed on [May 28].

Experts largely agree the plan’s long-term success would hinge on whether cities can usher in dense urban development around transit stations, at a time when birth rates in San Diego and throughout California are declining as overall population growth has all but come to a halt. 

“If new residents can live in apartments near rail, with easy walking, biking and transit access, that will be the key determinant as to whether or not this plan becomes a success,” said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment.

“If new residents can live in apartments near rail, with easy walking, biking and transit access, that will be the key determinant as to whether or not this plan becomes a success,” said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment.

“Population growth is a bit less important than where that growth occurs,” added Elkind, the co-author of a 2015 study that found San Diego rail stations were among the least walkable in California.

Some conservatives disagree. They say San Diego doesn’t have much of a chance of building the type of urban communities that would justify tens of billions of dollars in transit projects. 

“It makes no sense at all to build a regular trolley let alone high-speed rail,” said Richard Rider, chairman of San Diego Tax Fighters. “They’d have to make some assumption about growth which is off the charts compared to what is really happening.”

Republican officials also say the transportation plan short-changes previously promised freeway expansions. 

Most recently, San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones attacked the proposal for its inclusion of revenue from a “road charge.” The state has for several years studied a per-mile fee that some expect to replace the gas tax’s dwindling coffers, as more electric vehicles come online.

Still, supporters of the transit vision firmly control the 21-member board of the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, the region’s long-range transportation planning agency whose staff authored the plan. An alliance between environmental groups and organized labor has also thrown its weight behind the idea, exploring the possibility of a citizen’s ballot initiative to fund new transit projects.

That doesn’t mean, however, that elected officials will follow through with pushing density on their home turf. 

For years, neighborhood opposition has stalled new apartment construction from the coast of San Diego to tony Northern California hamlets. The state Legislature as well as local leaders have paid considerable lip service to lifting high limits and parking restrictions in and around affluent suburbs with little to show for it over the last decade.

San Diego could get its first challenge right out of the gate. The initial leg of the high-speed rail plan is tentatively slated to run along the coast through Solana Beach and Encinitas, cities that have bitterly fought housing requirements in court. 

SANDAG’s top brass says they have designed a system that will attract robust ridership as long as local leaders loosen zoning restrictions and champion new multifamily housing around train stations.

“Frankly, people have to rise up as leaders here,” said SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata. “If every city’s going to sit in the corner and say, ‘I want to preserve my rich, privileged area,’ this region will lose altogether.”

The plan’s broader goals are to manage freeway congestion and rein in greenhouse gases. It’s projected to increase transit use among commuters from 3% before the pandemic to 13% by 2050. At the same time, the number of people driving alone to work would drop from about 80% to around 62%.

Of course, it’s hard to predict exactly what San Diego will look like in 30 years. 

Until recently, SANDAG had projected the region would be home to more than 4 million people by mid-century, with an average annual growth rate around 1 percent based on births, deaths and migration.

However, San Diegans are having fewer and fewer children for a number of reasons, including stagnant wages and crippling housing costs. The region’s annual growth rate is now projected to plummet to 0.3 percent by 2040, with deaths outpacing births for the first time, according to SANDAG. 

By 2050, the region is expected to be home to about 3.7 million people, up from more than 3.3 million today — adding roughly 244,000 new housing units to its current stock of roughly 1.2 million units.

Those figures aren’t necessarily welcome news for a region poised to spend billions on a rail system predicated on transforming large swaths of suburbia into bustling urban landscapes.

Proponents say not to worry: The need for density will be eased, to a certain extent, by the new commuter rail’s high speeds. 

Historically, cities with the most robust transit ridership in the United States, such as Chicago, San Francisco and New York City, have large centralized job centers plagued by gridlocked traffic.

San Diego’s rail system, on the other hand, would service a region with dispersed employment hubs, often featuring office parks with plentiful parking. That’s why agency planners have spent the last year analyzing commuter routes, drive times and countless other factors to develop a system fast enough to keep pace with auto travel.

“San Diego’s plan as proposed is taking a leap different from every other region in the United States,” said Yonah Freemark, senior research associate and transit expert at the Washington D.C.-based think tank Urban Institute.

“This is more in the model of European regional rail systems that have been built for long distances at high speeds,” he added. “We see that in many German cities and in the Paris region.”

SANDAG officials said the envisioned commuter rail could travel up to 120 miles per hour in spots, and will average around 50 miles per hour. The system would use a mix of subway and elevated tracks to avoid road traffic. 

By comparison, the Bay Area Rapid Transit rail system that services San Francisco, Oakland and other cities can move up to 70 miles per hour, averaging about 35 miles an hour. San Diego’s current trolley system has a top speed of 55 miles an hour and an average speed of 21 miles an hour. 

Officials said the new commuter rail system would run about 22 hours a day, with service every seven to 10 minutes.

The locations of new train stations have yet to be hashed out, and the process could be contentious. Recently, SANDAG officials agreed to relocate a proposed site in North Park to City Heights after social justice activists complained. 

The agency envisions these new transit stations as hives of activity, with passengers hopping in and out of on-demand shuttles, transferring between buses and trains, shopping and going out to eat. 

“Mobility will be a service for a significant portion of the population in the future,” said Ray Major, SANDAG’s chief economist. “The cost of vehicle ownership doesn’t make sense for a lot of people.”

Such a service would be welcome news for Rodey Jerome, 56, of City Heights. Like most transit riders in San Diego, he’s doesn’t have access to a car. (Seventy percent of transit riders in San Diego are low-income residents without regular access to a vehicle, according to the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System.)

His daily commute takes about 90 minutes each way and includes catching a bus around 6 a.m. to the Green Line trolley out to Santee, where he rides his bike to his job providing in-home supportive services to an elderly woman. 

“It’s very much an inconvenience, the amount of time I spend on travel,” he said. “I’m currently working on getting a car, but it’s a major expense.”

Advocates for low-income communities say they will support SANDAG’s new transportation plan, but only if the final version prioritizes immediate upgrades to the region’s bus and trolley systems.

“The plan is very visionary and we’re super excited about it, but it’s not providing a sense of urgency,” said Carolina Martinez, climate justice campaign director for the Environmental Health Coalition. “Our communities are suffering right now.”

The phasing of various projects is still being determined, as is the financing. A tax initiative that spells out both could be put to voters as early as 2022.

SANDAG officials have urged patience with their long-term vision. They’ve pointed out that regions often take decades, if not generations, to grow into ambitious rail projects.

Ikhrata said that the plan for Bay Area Rapid Transit was initially criticized before it opened for service in the 1970s. “Newspapers wrote that San Francisco’s wasting money,” he said. “Imagine San Francisco without the BART today. There’s no way.”

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