In the Executive Summary to its most recent report on high speed rail along the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak admits that it may be grasping at straws. For the small cost of $151 billion, the rail giant says it could deliver a 37-minute trip between Philly and New York or a 94-minute trip between Boston and the Big Apple by 2040. Maybe.
“While it is likely infeasible for the full program to be realized by 2040,” the report says, “these elements of the program that have the biggest impacts on improving reliability, increased capacity and reduced trip-time should be strategically advanced as quickly as funding and program management resources will allow, to strengthen revenue and financial performance, thereby creating additional available capital for further program improvements.”
That’s a mouthful of jargon, but it basically says that Amtrak is reaching for the sky here. They have a proposal with costs that are both literally and figuratively insane; they have an aggressive timeline; and they have no clear fiscal path between today’s Point A and 2040’s Point B. I guess if you don’t ask, you can’t get anywhere, but sometimes, it may make sense to step back and assess the request first.
Amtrak’s report hit the Internet early last week, and I hadn’t had much time to digest it. For those who care to read the whole thing, you can download the pdf right here. It’s not quite the most compelling work of fiction I’ve read this summer, but it does get some points for creativity. It is essentially a combination of Amtrak’s 2010 proposal and its Northeast Corridor Infrastructure Master Plan. By combining two projects into one, Amtrak has ostensibly cut costs by nearly $20 billion while the overall pricetag remains high.
As a top-line summary, the costs breakdown like so: Amtrak is proposing nearly $19 billion for infrastructure upgrades; $14.7 billion for Gateway; $51.4 billion for high-speed rail between New York and D.C.; $58 billion for HSR between New York and Boston; and another $7.6 billion in rolling stock and maintenance facilities. These costs include six new stations, a few new water crossings, Moynihan Station, some right-of-way reconfigurations and some right-of-way acquisition costs. It’s a phased project that is moving forward as we speak, but it’s also designed to deliver incremental improvements. That 37-minute trip to Philadelphia should be 62 minutes by 2020, but it could also stay at 62 minutes for the foreseeable future.
Already, politicians are lining up behind the project. In a statement, Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey voiced his support. He will soon begin pushing legislation forward that is designed to deliver dollars for Amtrak. “Investing in our railways will create jobs, bolster businesses, and take cars off of our congested roads,” he said in a statement. “Amtrak will continue to have my full support as we move forward to revolutionize passenger rail travel in the Northeast.”
But should we embrace this proposal? We’re looking at a pricetag of over $200 million per kilometer of construction or $320 million per mile. Considering much of the right-of-way is already in place, those costs are, as I mentioned, insane. While bringing HSR to the Northeast Corridor is a goal that should be supported, at some point, we as a country have to step back and examine why these things costs so much more than anywhere else in the developed world.
Last week, Alon Levy looked at this proposal and tried to find a cheaper solution. He issued a full set of affordable recommendations for 90 percent less. This includes a focus on rolling stock and straightening out existing deficiencies. He also called the cost savings from the combined HSR/Master Plan proposal spurious at best. As many have speculated, Amtrak’s proposal may very well be an attempt to avoid a turf war with regional rail carriers, but it’s still a pie-in-the-sky idea that likely won’t and probably shouldn’t become a reality.
Transportation Nation called Amtrak’s bluff. Alex Goldmark wrote: “The document is an argument for why there should be and it is a detailed plan for how it could come to be — a transportation straw horse for political times hostile to megaprojects.” Maybe it could be a starting point for a serious discussion on high-speed rail, but maybe it’s a sign that we can’t have nice things on a grand scale in the Northeast.