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America Needs a “Second Great Railroad Revolution,” but Momentum is Stuck at the Station
Improving rail service could transform parts of the country and turn local economies into regional ones. More investment could transform the Northeast, provide better connections between Pittsburgh and Chicago, and alleviate some of the burden on the U.S. air transportation network. But let’s look specifically at the northeast and improving rail.
Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) connects Washington, DC to Boston and is the U.S.’s most heavily traveled rail line. It also shares the tracks with commuter rail, has to comply with different state and local laws, and traverse through some of the oldest and narrowest passageways in the country. The corridor needs significant investment, but like most change, it faces political roadblocks.
Politicians and residents often balk at proposed changes that would reduce travel time, some communities want (while others oppose) removing or adding stops on the line, and our national vision for high-speed rail significantly lags behind other countries. After lobbying by Connecticut costal communities and other nearby areas, the Federal Railway Administration (FRA) revised its plans before final approval.
While an “NEC Future” plan to address the corridor’s needs in 2040 and beyond has been approved, the pace and phasing of projects will depend on “decisions by the railroads and Northeast states, the availability of funding, market conditions, and practical operating constraints.” Boiled down, that translates into a lot of impediments to future progress.
However, what really highlights national opposition to rail is delay of what the Obama administration referred to as the most important planned piece of rail infrastructure in the country: the Gateway Program.
The Gateway Program is the planned expansion and renovation of the only rail tunnel under the Hudson River between Newark, NJ and New York Penn Station. The tunnel is at capacity and in need of repair. Despite a funding agreement between the federal government and the states of New York and New Jersey, the Trump Administration opposes the program and has put it on hold. Every year that passes the project gets more expensive and if the tunnel were to shutdown, a major shock to the regional and national economy would occur.
The Regional Plan Association (RPA) is one of many organizations advocating for the project and outlines what’s at stake. In their Feb. 2019 report, “A Preventable Crisis,” they outline the following effects if the tunnel were to shut down without a replacement ready:
The shutdown would cost the national economy $16 billion over four years.
Home owners in the region would see their property values dip by $22 billion.
Federal, state and local governments would lose $7 billion in tax revenue.
Both regional and national global standing as a place to live and work would suffer an incalculable loss.
But while more investment is needed, rail is getting hit as a result of the pandemic. The head of Amtrak urged lawmakers to pass legislation that includes more than $2 billion in emergency funding. Furloughs and service cuts have already been carried out and may get worse. On some long distance routes, servicing nearly 220 communities, service has declined from daily to a few times a week. In some rural areas, Amtrak is the only means of public transportation.
In the New York Times, Jim Mathews, the chief executive officer of the Rail Passengers Association was quoted as saying:
Dropping daily service will hurt heartland America’s economies to the tune of at least $2.3 billion while saving Amtrak less than $213 million.
It is good to see Biden’s infrastructure plan call for a “Second Great Railroad Revolution” and mention the Hudson River rail tunnel specifically, expanding NEC service further south, and electrifying the system. The country has missed out on rail investment for years, with a lot of focus on air travel. For connecting a country as large as the U.S. air travel is important, but for smaller regions, like the northeast, improving rail could ease mobility, alleviate heavy air traffic in the New York City region, and spur growth in rural areas by improving commuter rail connections to the main lines.
Despite how far behind the U.S. is on rail infrastructure, future improvements should be part of any comprehensive infrastructure plan.
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