Is High Speed Rail Stimulus Spread Too Thin?

On his trip to Florida, President Obama revealed his list of recipients for the High Speed Rail funding portion of the federal stimulus package. Reportedly, the $8 billion pot will be split amongst projects and planning in 31 different states to promote faster, more efficient transit across the U.S. There are numerous parts of our country’s railroad network that the Department of Transportation has designated as potential high speed rail corridor and most of them would benefit from developing such a revolutionary system. On the other hand, not all track beds are alike when the available funds are supposed to promote jobs, provide perceived benefit and comprise a mere fraction of the funding ultimately needed to institute HSR on a national scale.

Existing High Speed Rail RoutesPoliticians can think of few better ways to win public support than giving out free money. Coming the night after the State of the Union, this was a perfect time to publicly dole out the public’s own cash. It is not surprising that the administration would want to make as many constituencies feel better as possible, but sometimes endeavors (such as vast, highly technological, infrastructural upgrades) need a certain degree of critical mass. Otherwise, the result can be a watered down series of half-finished, under-funded tasks that only leaves people frustrated.

In this case, the choice of how to allocate funding for projects of this magnitude are (or at least should be) rather difficult; determined by a number of different factors. Still mired in a lethargic pace of recovery, the economy is searching for job opportunities and the President is pitching this distribution as the road to job creation. This means that projects that are closer to “shovel ready,” the better.

Building new HSR systems is extremely expensive, second only to subways when considering the realm of alternative transit. An estimated example can be drawn from the proposed California line from Los Angeles to San Francisco has estimated costs upwards of $45 billion that would translate into $130 million per track mile. The distance that needs to be covered becomes important quickly. Given that this quick boost of funding is not going to bring any project from start to finish, someone should also be weighing the likelihood that state governments will have to means to complete the projects themselves. Naturally, California is a standout, seeking to create a $45 billion transit system while their government is bankrupt.

High Speed Rail StimulusIn order to have a chance at operating at higher capacities (and efficiencies), these trains should also be connecting cities that not only have considerable populations, but have mature transit systems of their own, realizing that HSR is only a piece of the ecology of alternative transit. It could be anti-climactic  to travel 400 miles in two hours only to take another hour to travel 40 blocks.

When we look at the corridors themselves it is difficult to find the government’s method. With so few dollars going to so many miles of track, it is unlikely that the funding will actually “complete” many projects but rather help some of them get off the ground. One exception and stand-out-hopeful of American HSR is the Northeast Corridor. Connecting most major cities in the Northeast from Boston to Washington D.C., the NEC draws on over a tenth of the country’s population with the combined metro areas of its main stops and all of those stops have public transit systems of their own. The line also already operates as the country’s only high speed train (I use the term loosely, because it still pales to international counterparts.) Amtrak’s Acela is one of Amtrak’s few profitable routes.

In the Wall Street Journal Amtrak’s CEO, Joseph Boardman, claimed a year ago that “we can improve the Acela in many ways and reduce the travel time from New York to Washington to two hours and 30 minutes, including five stops” by utilizing a minor changes in signaling and track upgrades. Eventually the train could make the journey in only two hours, but Boardman says that is billions of dollars away. For a relatively small amount of money, the government could see jobs and, perhaps more importantly, results felt by hundreds of thousands of commuters.

After that, the likelihood of actually stimulating any real progress is minimal. The Chicago Hub Network is one of the longest proposed corridors in the country requiring tens of billions of dollars to ever become a reality. Conversely, the Empire corridor through upstate New York is half as long, connects more people and probably cuts through cheaper land. We will learn more when the actual dollar amounts are linked to their respective corridors, but one has to wonder whether or not fewer projects with larger helpings may have done more for the goal—even if it pleased fewer voters.

I will say that I believe HSR is a good use of stimulus funds. If we are going to spend money we do not have, it might as well be on something that can create jobs and assesses the infrastructural deficiencies that we have in the country. Transportation is one many large systematic dilemmas facing the future of the country. It is not as though we are trailblazing anything either. Other countries do this well. The technology is there, so let us get on board (no pun intended).

This is an important first step in promoting the development of a transit system built to the caliber that our country deserves and requires.

Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal