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Really High-Speed Rail Would Slice Through Auto Bottlenecks

Tom Condon

September 12, 2010

After dropping his freshman son at college in Worcester a couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine asked," Is Sunday night traffic on the Mass Pike always that bad?"

"Sometimes it's worse," I reassured him. I've had kids in college in Worcester for several years, so have inched along the Pike on a number of Sunday nights, often staring at the broad expanse of median, asking God why there wasn't a train track on it.

And while it is a relief to finally get off the Pike, there's another 40 miles or so to get to Hartford on I-84, with its underutilized median.

That there might one day be a high-speed train in these highway corridors is why I direct your attention to a bold proposal developed this year by a graduate seminar at the University of Pennsylvania.

The 18 students, led by Marilyn Taylor, dean of Penn's design school, and Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association and a professor at Penn, created a plan to build a new, separate, high-speed rail system in the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C. This would be real high-speed regional and commuter rail, not the 70-80 mph Acela, but 150-180 mph trains that would cut travel times in the corridor in half. The trip from Washington to New York would take 90 minutes instead of the current top time of 2:45. New York to Boston would be 1:45 instead of 3:30.

The plan largely uses the existing corridor from Washington to New York, adding two new tracks by realigning the present tracks and using tunnels to avoid urban bottlenecks. The daring part of the plan is north of New York. The new high-speed line would travel east down Long Island and then under Long Island Sound through a 20-mile, three-tube tunnel to New Haven. From there, it would travel in the median of I-91 to Hartford and then on the median of I-84 and the Mass Pike to Boston. Prayer answered. Planners believe it would triple the passenger carrying capacity of the corridor.

It would cost $98 billion over 20 years, the Penn group estimates. Would such an investment make sense? I think so.

The Northeast Region, from Maine to Virginia, has about 50 million people and, according to the Penn plan, is expected to add 20 million people by 2050. They have to live somewhere. If the present pattern of low-density sprawl development continues, and it will until it is stopped, more than 23,000 square miles of land will be urbanized in the region, an area more than twice the size of Massachusetts, Yaro's organization estimates. That means more loss of woods, farms, watershed, habitat and rural vistas, more pollution, more depletion of cities.

The presence of high-speed rail, however, will encourage housing and commercial construction in cities where the train will stop, such as Hartford.

Those 20 million new people will need to get around. We could keep pushing more cars onto the highways, but that would be stupid. The primacy of the car is causing climate change and dependence on foreign or deep water oil, a huge cost in time, productivity, gas and pollution caused by traffic congestion a Transportation Strategies Board draft report out last week puts the annual cost of congestion "very conservatively" at $670 million and the staggering human and financial costs of auto accidents, among other things. High-speed rail provides a saner and safer alternative for middle-distance trips, as transit does for shorter trips.

From the local perspective, the biggest advantage of this high-speed rail system is that it would put Harford an hour away from Boston and New York, giving it the chance to become the Stamford of the 21st century. With proper planning by the city, it's easy to imagine companies locating or expanding here to take advantage of the area's strong quality of life. "Hartford is a prime beneficiary" of the proposal, Yaro said in an interview last week. He also said it is possible, with viaducts and tunnels, to run the two new tracks along the Connecticut shoreline to New Haven, instead of Long Island and the tunnel, though the corridor is now heavily traveled and somewhat constricted.

There is a way this could happen. Amtrak and 11 states including Connecticut have asked the Federal Railroad Administration for $18.8 million to do a study of high-speed rail, including immediate repair needs as well as long-term needs to 2050. The Penn project could become a focus of that study.

Also, Amtrak's Northeast Corridor Master Plan calls for spending $50 billion over 20 years to repair the current system, a must. But some of that work is redundant to the Penn plan, Yaro said, so its real price tag may be less than $98 billion. And, President Barack Obama's proposed $50 billion infrastructure bank might get the work started.

The Penn plan has gotten the attention of Amtrak and the FRA. This week the Penn team is making a presentation to Vice President Joseph Biden, a well-known Amtrak rider. I urge our congressional delegation to get on board. As the consultant Michael Gallis said a decade ago, traffic congestion is turning the state into an economic cul-de-sac. It needs a bold stroke to get people and goods moving again. Something very much like the Penn proposal.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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