Quantifying the Economic Value of the Northeast Corridor, the First Step of a Longer Journey


If asked whether the Northeast Corridor is an asset to the region, the average individual that lives, works, or owns a business near the corridor would likely agree that the rail infrastructure which we currently rely on is a valuable asset. How else could a region with such a dense collection of housing and employment sustain itself if every individual relied on already congested highways for all their commuting and travel needs? We already know the Northeast Corridor carries 750,000 daily passengers, making travel and commuting in the region easier and more efficient. However, a quantitative understanding of the economic value that the Northeast Corridor brings to the region has always been lacking in the debate for infrastructure investment. What value does our current rail infrastructure represent in the economy? What value to the economy could be added if investment in stable, reliable, and high-speed rail infrastructure occurred? Thanks to the Northeast Corridor Commission, the first of those two questions has been answered. To answer the second, we may need to look to the UK for direction.

With the release of the NEC Commission's latest report, "The Northeast Corridor and the American Economy", there is finally a quantified analysis of the economic importance of our rail infrastructure. According to the report, the existence of the Northeast Corridor and the connections it provides to employment, housing, and businesses via passenger rail; and agriculture and industry via freight rail; adds $50 billion to the nation's GDP. Furthermore, the report identified that if Northeast Corridor operations were disrupted, it would cost the region $100 million a day in lost productivity. This type of analysis is a step in the right direction for making the argument for investment in our critical infrastructure assets. However, there is still much work to be done. We have affirmed what was already suspected; the Northeast Corridor adds tremendous value to the Northeast Megaregion beyond fare box revenues. But what about the possibilities? What would investment in the state of good repair backlog and capacity expansion bring to the regional economy? Not in terms of time savings for commuters, or in reduced maintenance or investment in highways, but rather how would industries expand, employment and wages increase? How does investment in infrastructure increase GDP?

The Department for Transport in the United Kingdom has taken an approach that is worth emulating. The agency's high speed rail development company, HS2, commissioned a report detailing the economic impact on the national economy that would follow the completion of a high speed rail network. By analyzing productivity gains, increased access to talent, and improved business to business connections, investment in high speed rail is expected to add £15 billion a year to the United Kingdom's economy by 2037. A similar analysis would be a great asset for the ongoing debates around rail investment in the Northeast Corridor. We now know the value of the corridor, and what could be lost if we allow it to deteriorate further. Let's bolster our arguments for investment by analyzing the economic opportunity for capacity expansion, and by extension, the opportunity cost of letting the corridor deteriorate further.

A coalition of business and civic leaders committed to improving passenger rail in the Northeast.
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