A Vision For High-Speed Rail in the Northeast Corridor

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>> High-Speed Rail is a game-changer. It has the potential to radically improve our transportation system and transform the economic geography of our cities and region.

It's 5 o'clock and you're running late. Your meeting in Washington, DC, went well. So well, in fact, that it went long and you missed your flight home to Boston. Any other night you would be fine, but tonight you have to get home quickly - it's your anniversary and you promised your spouse you'd make it home in time for dinner. You call the airline. There's a flight leaving soon but it's rush hour. With traffic and security, you'll never get to the gate in time. You look up the bus schedule. It's cheap, but out of the question. It won't arrive until past midnight or even later with traffic on I-95.

Quickly, you run to Union Station. To your relief, you find out that trains leave for Boston every 30 minutes. But, of course, you think, it will never get you there on time. A glance at the schedule delivers a shocking surprise - the 5:30 departure from Washington arrives in Boston at 9:00! Plenty of time for a late dinner! Whew! You board the train, recline in your roomy, comfortable seat, modify your dinner reservation using the train's free Wi-Fi network, and call your spouse to share the good news.

Why Build High-Speed Rail in the Northeast? from Regional Plan Association on Vimeo.

This vision could be a reality.

For the past four decades, passengers have long dreamed of riding a true, high-speed rail service on the NEC. With a strong culture of rail ridership and a string of dense, transit-friendly cities, the NEC has the ideal characteristics for high-speed rail. While we have seen major progress, like the launch of Amtrak's Acela service in 2001, the NEC has been unable to make true high-speed rail happen.

As we dream about it, other countries around the world are living it. While high-speed rail seems like a no-brainer for a small, dense, technology-driven country, like Japan, and wealthy, rail-friendly European powers, like France and Germany, the rapid growth of high-speed rail in Spain, China, and soon Brazil has shown us something new. These countries understand that high-speed rail is not a luxury, but rather an imperative for their long-term national economic growth.

Following President Obama's historic investment in a national high-speed rail network in the economic stimulus package, supporters of true high-speed rail are making a renewed push. Over the past year, two new proposals offer a glimpse of what constructing high-speed rail in the NEC would require and describe its remarkable potential to transform the Northeast economy. In May 2010, a studio at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Design presented a vision of high-speed rail in the Northeast, followed by the release of a detailed implementation plan in May 2011. In September 2010, Amtrak released their plan for constructing a next generation high speed rail system in the Northeast.

In these proposals, we see that strategic investments in high-speed rail will provide tremendous benefits for the Northeast economy. With super express trains serving the region's largest cities and reaching speeds over 200 mph, travel times in the Northeast will be cut by more than half:

Source of estimated travel time: Penn Design Proposal for HSR on the NEC.

The benefits that high-speed rail can promise go beyond dramatically improved travel times. High-speed rail can provide the missing link to a balanced transportation system, transforming the way we interact with our communities and with each other. As part of its A Better Tomorrow initiative, America 2050 helped produce a unique video that portrays a Detroit transformed for the better by high-speed rail, providing a powerful vision of what high-speed rail could mean for the Northeast.

The power of high-speed rail extend beyond our transportation system. The price of a high-speed rail system is high, but should be considered an investment rather than a cost. Both the Amtrak and Penn proposals estimate that high-speed rail in the NEC would cost about $100 billion dollars. However, the benefits far outweigh this hefty price tag. For example, the American Public Transportation Association estimates that every $1 billion invested in high-speed rail creates over 24,000 jobs. That means that building high-speed rail in the NEC could create, not thousands, but millions of jobs.

High-speed rail also has the potential to transform and regenerate our urban cores, particularly the medium-sized cities, like Baltimore, MD, Newark, NJ, and New Haven, CT, which have struggled to transition from a manufacturing to a service-based economy. According to the Penn proposal, high-speed rail in the NEC would put an additional 10.5 million residents within a one-hour trip distance of Philadelphia, effectively raising its employment pool. While transportation is not the silver-bullet to reinvigorating our struggling cities, it increases the number of jobs and housing options that citizens have access to.

These changes offer only a mere glimmer of the many impacts that high-speed rail can offer the Northeast Megaregion. Metropolitan growth, energy independence, economic productivity, national security, and environmental sustainability will all benefit from a true, high-speed rail service and a more balanced regional transportation system.

For more information, the Penn proposal, available here offers a detailed vision of the effect that high-speed rail can have on the local and regional scales. Amtrak's proposal, available here, offers its own vision for a new HSR alignment and service on the NEC.


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This is a project of national importance and a start must be made to reduce highway/air funding priority over intercity and regional rail. Economic competitiveness in the global economy is the most compelling reason to fast forward NEC development/expansion plans for a true high speed rail corridor from Boston to Washington. However Richmond, Charlotte and onwards to Atlanta should likewise be a goal.

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