Where Should Obama’s High-Speed Rail Money Go?

Where, oh where, will President Obama spread billions in high-speed-rail money?

The question is on the minds of many in the transportation world these days—a first round of applications for federal stimulus money was due late last month—and now many have their own set of thoughts on the topic. Thursday morning, America 2050, an urban planning/transportation advocacy conglomerate group, released a report that recommended directing federal high-speed-rail money to routes in the Northeast, California and the central Midwest.

The report ranked possible high-speed-rail routes, and ones between Boston, New York and Washington topped the list. Of course, the variables used in ranking the routes—population, density, proximity to other cities; whether there is a large mass transit system—tend to favor the big Northeastern cities. The cost of building these routes was not a factor in the report by the umbrella group, a member of which is the tri-state transportation-focused Regional Plan Association.

The report comes as the Obama administration is figuring out just how to dole out the $8 billion it allocated in stimulus money for high-speed rail. The report recommends doing the first set of rail projects, and then, if more funds become available, to extend high-speed rail to cities that rank lower, including routes between Los Angeles and San Diego, Houston and Dallas, and New York City and Albany.

The only high-speed-rail service in the country already runs between Boston and Washington, but with an average speed of about 80 miles-per-hour, Amtrak’s Acela is not all that high-speed. There are a number of proposals floating around that would increase the speed of the Acela’s route, including bridge and tunnel improvements. The other routes, particularly California, would need a good deal more money given the nature of starting a new high-speed route—the price tag for California’s plan is about $45 billion in full.

The Paterson administration has told officials and others involved with the planned expansion of Penn Station (Moynihan Station) that it intends to apply for high-speed-rail money for the project, which needs at least $400 million in additional money, though estimates go up from there. The project, however, is mostly about creating an iconic rail station rather than about increasing capacity (though it would add a platform), and would do relatively little to increase speed on the corridor. 

ebrown@observer.com Where Should Obama’s High-Speed Rail Money Go?