"Patchwork" high speed rail

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Gerald Neily

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Feb 10, 2011, 9:04:36 AM2/10/11
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I suppose I shouldn't just let this little listserve die when there is a need for an outlet to discuss the real issues.

Michael Dresser's piece on the latest in high speed rail in today's Sun is worth such an airing:
http://www.baltimoresun.com/features/commuting/bs-md-lahood-transportation-20110209,0,4492207.story

It confirms that the Obama administration is more interested in using high speed rail money to reward its friends than to develop any kind of rational system. USDOT Secretary LaHood actually acknowledges that this approach is "patchwork". How can anything decent get built if they don't even try to? And this "patchwork" is going to cost $53 billion over the next six years with the ultimate outcome solely dependent on politics more than rationality. It's symptomatic of the way the whole federal stimulus plan seems to have degenerated into chaos.

Dresser contrasts Wisconsin, which has rejected the federal money based on their priorities, with Maryland, which will take any money the feds give them without making any kind of real commitment in return. Maryland shelved its own MagLev project, and has put off building everything else indefinitely (hi-speed rail, major freight upgrades, Red Line, Purple Line, Green Line, Corridor Cities Line), but will keep spending crumbs on more and more studies just to keep its lips in the federal funding trough. This is the essence of the "patchwork" approach LaHood has touted.

Let's not confuse this with rebuilding the West Baltimore Amtrak tunnel, as Dresser has. This is just a system preservation project which will increase speeds up to maybe 50 mph. It has very little to do with high speed rail.

What is totally clear is that with this patchwork approach, neither the federal or state governments, Democrat or Republican, are in any kind of position to push for a true high speed rail system. New Jersey is coming out of this looking very rational. They've just pawned their patchwork and unmanageable $8.7 billion Hudson tunnel plan off on Amtrak (which Dresser doesn't mention today) and Amtrak has quickly escalated it into a $13.5 billion plan.

At least Amtrak has some ability to look beyond state borders, unlike any other actor in all this, although Amtrak has its own obvious baggage. I have no idea whether their $13.5 billion plan is any good, as it hasn't been vetted much in the larger media. It got a tiny mention yesterday in the Sun. For $13.5B, it ought to be !!!!! Has our MDOT been involved? Anything Amtrak does certainly affects Maryland.

This whole high speed rail mess cries out for a regional multi-state perspective, especially in the Northeast Corridor, but also in places like Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida and Michigan (which was still pretending to be building a Kalamazoo high speed rail line the last time I heard).

Here's my plan from last October:

James Hunt

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Feb 10, 2011, 11:44:36 AM2/10/11
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On Thu, Feb 10, 2011 at 9:04 AM, Gerald Neily <geral...@cavtel.net> wrote:
I suppose I shouldn't just let this little listserve die when there is a need for an outlet to discuss the real issues.

Michael Dresser's piece on the latest in high speed rail in today's Sun is worth such an airing:
http://www.baltimoresun.com/features/commuting/bs-md-lahood-transportation-20110209,0,4492207.story

It confirms that the Obama administration is more interested in using high speed rail money to reward its friends than to develop any kind of rational system. USDOT Secretary LaHood actually acknowledges that this approach is "patchwork". How can anything decent get built if they don't even try to? And this "patchwork" is going to cost $53 billion over the next six years with the ultimate outcome solely dependent on politics more than rationality. It's symptomatic of the way the whole federal stimulus plan seems to have degenerated into chaos.

///////////////////////////////////////////////

LaHood compares high speed rail to the interstate system when it became a federal priority in the 50s. While it may have been completed in chunks, it wasn't envisioned that way and the benefits were immediately obvious to pretty much everyone who'd spent any time on the nation's roads up to that point. (Which is just about everyone).

So, he starts with an analogy failure and gets progressively (pun intended) less lucid thereafter.

I believe in the big vision, but while we're paying off some bills and getting our grossly underfunded entitlements in order, can we start with a "fix whatcha got" plan, wherein we rebuild the West Balto tunnel, make repairs as necessary under Howard Street, etc?

Speed matters in some contexts--e.g. heavy rail would be preferable for the Red Line--but with the advent of Skype, iPads and other mobile devices, teleconferencing, et al, whether one can get from Baltimore to NYC by train in 2:36 by the NE Regional, 2:15 by Acela; or 1:45 by the future "high speed" line isn't that important to most riders.

Jed Weeks

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Feb 10, 2011, 1:18:01 PM2/10/11
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Maybe I'm naive, but isn't this a possible opportunity to actually get a great circle tunnel built?

Also, aren't many of the Acela speed issues related to track sharing? Why don't they just drop regional service altogether in favor of Acela and Commuter rail ONLY between DC and BOS?

Jed

Gerald Neily

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Feb 11, 2011, 12:27:13 PM2/11/11
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Yes, Jamie, I agree that LaHood's analogy with the Interstate system is pathetically bad. Highways and rail are two completely different things, period. And the planning for the Interstate system did make some spectacular mistakes, as we know, plowing thru cities, bypassing cities, ruining large areas, and encouraging sprawl. The planning model of the toll road system between New York and Chicago, which was in place before the Interstate system started, was far superior and kept Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cleveland largely intact, and the tolls and interchange spacing prevented a lot of sprawl.

So we should know we should not be so cavalier as LaHood is about building a "patchwork" system. He acts like he's running GBC or an organization of that ilk rather than running the USDOT. The hype alone is sickening. High speed rail is not an anti-recession stimulus project. It's a long range investment.

Jed, I wish I knew the answer to the rail operations problems in the Northeast Corridor, but I don't. You might be onto something. I know that marketing and political considerations play far too big a role in the service plans. Acela is largely an excuse to charge way higher fares to business travelers, which was the whole myopic concept behind the MDOT Maglev plan. Why does MARC end at Perryville? Why does SEPTA end at Newark, DE? Why is a small town like Trenton the big SEPTA/NJT terminus. Artificial borders, of course.

If we did what you said with commuter trains and Acela, and expanded the commuter service, we wouldn't even need the Amtrak Regionals.

I don't know if the great circle is worth the money. I hope it is, and you're right about pushing for it.


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