The Corner

U.S.

The Problems with a New Proposal for High-Speed Rail in New England

California’s high-speed-rail project — delayed, downsized, and over budget — under construction in Fresno, 2019 (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Politico‘s Sam Mintz reports that “22 members of Congress from the Northeast are asking for federal funding for a new entity they’re calling the North Atlantic Rail Corporation (NARC) to build a $105 billion high-speed rail system connecting New York and New England.”

Republicans should tell them, in no uncertain terms, “Absolutely not.”

Map of the proposed NAR system, from https://northatlanticrail.org/maps.

The North Atlantic Rail Initiative website makes four arguments why the project is necessary. Not one of them is any good.

First, “national competitiveness.”

The U.S. trails its European and Asian counterparts who have strong national infrastructure strategies, making us less competitive economically.

  • Britain is investing $160 billion in two high-speed rail lines that will connect older industrial cities.

  • China is building many new miles of rail each year.

  • More than 25 countries already have or are building high-speed rail networks.

If you only listened to rail advocates, you’d think Western Europe and Asia are the only places in the world with developed economies. Canada and Australia also have developed economies, and they don’t have high-speed rail. Their transportation systems are based on highways and airplanes. Sound familiar? The United States is geographically much more similar to Canada and Australia than it is to Western Europe or Asia. We have very low population density and a very large amount of land. Our situation, like Canada’s and Australia’s, is not well suited for passenger rail. That doesn’t make us, or them, less competitive economically.

Second, “equity for our region,” meaning New England.

The seven-state region has been left out of national efforts to improve infrastructure, even though the area is home to 11% of the U.S. population and is responsible for 14% of U.S. GDP.

  • New England did not receive any high speed rail money from the federal government in 2009.

  • New England did not endorse a preferred route during Northeast Corridor planning efforts.

Let’s all throw a pity party for New England. Personal income per capita in New England was $73,961 in 2020, the highest of any of the eight U.S. regions used by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. New England has ranked first every year since 1991. If we’re going to make decisions based on equity, it should be on equity of results, not equity of expenditure. New England is doing just fine. The reason New England did not receive any high-speed rail money from the federal government in 2009 is probably that New England already has a highly developed rail network compared with other regions of the country. It’s also hard not to notice possible political motivations: High-speed rail money went to places like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida, which happen to be vital swing states in presidential elections.

Third, “post-COVID future.” (Be prepared for “post-COVID future” to be used to justify a bunch of bad ideas from government.)

The country’s densest regions, including the Boston and NY/LI areas, need to adapt to changing work travel patterns.

  • North Atlantic Rail will allow employers struggling to afford city-center rents to move to smaller cities while keeping access to larger cities and labor pools as needed.

  • Much of the essential work that keeps our society moving forward must be done in person, and high-speed rail enhances essential workers’ quality of life by helping shorten existing commutes and providing more choices for where they can live.

  • When telecommuting is not possible, these 21st century rail projects will not only enable employees to work with ease during transit, but also enter city centers quickly and safely.

The region that would be served by this project is already served by the Long Island Rail Road, the Metro-North Railroad, CTrail’s Shore Line East and Hartford Line, and MBTA Commuter Rail. Those systems combine for around 400 stations and 1,200 miles of track. (For perspective, the entire distance between New York and Boston is a little over 200 miles.) Post-COVID, fewer people will be commuting than before COVID. In a region already saturated with commuter rail, the answer to fewer riders is not to build more rail.

Fourth, “environmental injustice.”

Decades of car-centric infrastructure investments have saddled vulnerable communities with air pollution and is contributing to climate change, a major threat to our region.

  • Electric passenger rail systems will drastically decrease the amount of air pollution being pumped into poor neighborhoods and communities of color by replacing diesel trains and providing an attractive travel alternative to current day drivers.

  • North Atlantic Rail wants to prioritize investments in communities where the threats of air pollution and transportation-related environmental degradation are the most grave to begin to right the wrongs of past transportation projects.

Contrary to what you might expect, environmentalists are some of rail’s foremost opponents. Let’s grant the emissions-reduction point in its entirety. That still leaves construction. Environmentalists aren’t big fans of new construction projects, no matter what they are, but especially ones that seek to cut straight lines through nature. This project wants to build a tunnel across the Long Island Sound to connect Ronkonkoma, N.Y., directly with New Haven, Conn. Are we supposed to believe that the Sierra Club and Greenpeace folks in Connecticut and New York State are just going to be alright with that? And even if they were, the environmental-review process with the state and federal governments would make Kafka wince. The communities the North Atlantic Rail people should be most worried about are not the poor neighborhoods, but the rich ones. It’s been hard enough building high-speed rail through the middle of nowhere in California. Good luck building it through some of the densest and wealthiest neighborhoods in America.

The North Atlantic Rail Initiative also brags that the $105 billion it’s requesting “would represent just 5% of a $2 trillion infrastructure program.” Just five percent! Imagine if it were a $20 trillion infrastructure program, then it would only be 0.5 percent! Though this proposal is entertaining, it should not be entertained by Congress.

Recommended

The Latest