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Public Transportation Wed Feb 03 2010

A Tale of Two Cities: High-Speed Rail Reactions


President Obama awarded $8 billion in high-speed rail grants to 31 states last week -- and the Midwest was not forgotten. The region was awarded $2.6 billion in total to build four major corridors: Chicago-St. Louis-Kansas City, Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago, Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati, and Detroit-Chicago. In a fairly major victory, Illinois received $1.13 billion to look at the Chicago-St. Louis-Kansas City corridor (pdf). The money will look at phase one of the plan to improve tracks, signal systems, and existing stations on the current Amtrak line.

Two local articles -- one from the Chicago Tribune and one from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch -- highlight some important issues that legislators need to consider to ensure high-speed transit in the Midwest is successful.

In a nice analysis piece, the Chicago Tribune's Blair Kamin argues that stations and architecture need to be thoroughly thought out and planned in order for high-speed transit to have any impact on the average person's commute:

This isn't just fixing crumbling roads and bridges. It could revolutionize the way we move and live. But if a new order is to replace the old one, much more needs to be done than speeding up the trains. The entire passenger experience has to be thought through, from curb side to the train shed. If you doubt that, take a look at the mess in Union Station, the likely hub of Midwest high-speed rail.


Meanwhile downstate, the editorial board of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ponders if $8 billion -- and the additional $5 billion promised -- will even make a dent in changing America's current infrastructure. When it comes to public transportation, St. Louis residents have few options but to rely on their car for almost every trip:

With apologies to futurists, people in the construction industry and rail buffs, investing $13 billion (or even $8 billion) in passenger railroads is a little like building a bridge to the 19th century. It's not enough money to make trains fast enough, attractive enough and affordable enough to attract sufficient passengers to operate without massive government subsidies....And perhaps we're being short-sighted: It could be that 50 years from now, America will be glad it invested in high-speed rail. But right now, there are far better, fairer and faster ways to stimulate the economy than spending $8 billion on the relatively affluent 1 percent of Americans who ride trains. Public transit immediately comes to mind. Missouri got $31 million to upgrade St. Louis-to-Kansas City service that served 150,000 passengers last year. The state also subsidizes those twice-daily trains with $5 million a year. Meanwhile, the Metro transit service in St. Louis -- which carried 353 times more passengers than the state's two Amtrak trains last year -- gets zero in state tax subsidies, though the Legislature last year appropriated $12 million in federal stimulus money to temporarily offset crippling transit cuts.

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Howard Learner / February 4, 2010 9:44 AM

Investing in modern, fast, comfortable and convenient higher-speed rail service is a smart move towards better transportation infrastructure, not "short-sighted," as the Post-Dispatch's editorial worries. Better rail service will improve mobility, reduce pollution, create new jobs and spur economic growth.

First, the $1.1 billion federal grant to upgrade track from St. Louis to Dwight, IL is 100% of the funding needed. This project is shovel ready and will put people to work creating transportation benefits for the many people traveling on this busy corridor.

Second, "Rome wasn't built in a day," and most major new transportation projects are not built in a year. Highway expansions and new transit projects are often built in phases and stages. The same is true for the build out of the eight-state Midwest high-speed rail network. This new federal investment jumpstarts the structural transformation of our transportation system for the 21st Century.

Third, federal investment in high-speed rail meets the public’s mobility needs and helps to keep our economy moving. For years, federal transportation funds almost exclusively supported auto and air travel. Today, Americans spend $1 billion a day on foreign oil and an average of 4 weeks each year stuck in gridlock. High-speed rail is 3X more efficient than cars and 6X more efficient than planes on a per passenger mile basis. Better performance, more national security, less pollution for the future.

Fourth, comparing intercity high-speed rail to intracity public transit is apples and oranges. High-speed rail competes with air travel and long car trips for businesspeople, students and families traveling to see each other on weekends. The key goal is for the rail trip to be time competitive on a door-to-door basis with air travel. Moreover, rail passengers can use their time more productively for work or studying than in frustrating air travel or while driving.

Modern, fast, convenient and comfortable trains will attract riders. When Amtrak improved service between Chicago and St. Louis a few years ago, ridership doubled. Better high-speed rail service is expected to triple ridership in the coming years. Last week’s announcement is the first step towards a better intercity rail transportation system that will create jobs and boost our economy, better enable Midwesterners to go from city-to-city, and protect our environment.

Comrade 661 / February 4, 2010 2:36 PM

- So if the trains would go 3-4 times faster than a normal train, they would require 3-4 times the time needed to signal their approach to road crossings.

That'll tie up traffic real nice and impede mobility. Of course, since the majority of people will be driving, this will be a real good way to build the support for the high subsidies that all high speed rail in the world need to operate. Lets soak the voters and piss them off!

- On national security, does anyone believe that, if Americans started travelling by train in numbers,there would not be an attempted attack on a rail line that would require establishment of security lines and the like? Once this happens, you can say goodbye to any percieved time benefit.

Of course, if Americans are spending $1 billion per day on foreign oil, wouldn't a more prudent consideration be to ask why they aren't spending $1 billion per day on domestic oil. That. Creates. Actual. Jobs.

- Any actual line construction would take 10-20 years to complete. With all the technological advances that have been made in the last 20 years, i.e. making vehicles that get $50+ mpg, does anyone really think that we won't have a more cost effective means of travel by the time these lines would be operational?

Or to rephrase the question: Who wins the race? Central planning or free enterprise?

- Cost estimates are that each mile of high speed rail is $40-$80 million. That $1.13 billion in funding wouldn't lay track from Chicago to Plainfield, even if it was all devoted to construction!

Ramsin / February 4, 2010 7:23 PM

Doesn't all the red-baiting get old, Comrade? Seriously, enough already. The socialist left in the United States has dwindled to the 5 digits.

The Magical Free Market Unicorn you think can magically solve problems has gotten us into this mess and many others--I know, I know; one day, the Free Market Revolution will come, and THEN everything will work perfectly efficiently, right? Sounds a lot like another utopian dogma. Evaluate things critically, not according to your free market dogma.

That said, nice post Sheila; though I wonder--how do we solve that "Last Mile problem". You take the train to St. Louis--then what? The problem isn't so much the long distances--I think people would love to be able to take a train even if it were slower than driving, just because they could read, work, sleep. The problem is once they get to the train station--how do they get around? To their hotel, from their hotel. I think the long-distance travel is less important than figuring out how to make cities designed for cars fully walkable/public transportation...uh, -able.

Comrade 661 / February 5, 2010 11:15 AM

Ramsin, doesn't ad hominem responses get old? You respond with ridicule and ideology to real questions. (btw, love the "free market got us into this mess!" line - as if regulatory bodies don't exist)

The crux of the high speed rail problem, is its very expensive and primarily based on a lot of "what ifs" and "wouldn't it be cools" rather than based on real supply and demand. My personal favorite is "we're falling behind other countries in rail technology", as if rail tech is a one size fits all technology and there is a prize for being number one.

If you want a good example, look to the People Mover in Detroit. It was and is a huge waste of taxpayer money because they thought if they built it, people would come. They did not. They put supply before demand, which is the underlying problem of command style economics (inefficient capital resource allocation).

RAStewart / February 7, 2010 1:45 AM

I can kind of understand the Post-Dispatch's concerns, since St. Louis went much further than Chicago in dismantling its public transit in the postwar era and has a lot more rebuilding to do. But between intercity trains and local transit, it's going to have to be, not one or the other, but both. Just as the wholesale adoption of the private automobile as the almost exclusive means of transit required local communities to be reshaped around the car, intercity trains will never reach their potential if most destinations can only be navigated by driving. It's damned unfortunate that this reality is hitting after thirty years of gutting the public treasury.

And by the way, as to the "relatively affluent" 1 percent who ride trains: I'm a librarian--that disposes of relatively affluent, believe me--and if I'm looking at a trip out of town, the train is my first choice if it's at all practical. Apparently I'm not the only one who feels that way, since Amtrak runs five daily trains to Springfield now, and when I was going there fairly regularly, they were usually pretty full.

I have heard of the People Mover but have to admit I've never really looked at it. I will have to correct that omission. It does occur to me that the evaluation of any project in Detroit has to be mindful of that city's woeful condition--the quintessence of the American city stripped of its economic base and left to rot. "Build it and they will come" is always a dicey proposition when there are so few "theys" left.

RAStewart / February 7, 2010 1:48 AM

P.S. At any rate, after the Party of No Amtrak retakes Congress in November and the White House in 2012, this will all be a moot point.

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