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Want High Speed Rail to Fail? Don't Fund Local Transit

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

On March 18, the Illinois State Senate approved the formation of a High Speed Rail Commission for Illinois.  While the bill still has to be passed by the State House and signed by Gov. Quinn, the bipartisan vote in the Senate seems to make its eventual passage a foregone conclusion.  This is great news for a number of reasons.  One of the biggest in my view is the proscription for studying and designing truly high-speed trains, that is, trains that top out over 200 mph.  Let's be completely clear: current rail travel between Chicago and St. Louis, even when the enhancements funded by the US Department of Transportation's $1.13 billion stimulus infusion earlier this year are complete, will only speed trains up to 110 mph.  That's not high speed rail, and the ridership levels on the current line flounder because of it.  Really, that's regional rail at a regional scale that's too large for the train to gain any market share.

Stock HSR.jpg

A true HSR line would serve a market with similar demographics to the outstanding Paris-Lyon TGV line.  It would serve more than 3 million riders annually and help grow the regional economy.  The next step will be to integrate the planned Milwaukee-to-Madison HSR line into a full Midwest Line running from St. Louis through Chicago and Milwaukee to the Twin Cities in Minnesota.

There are, however two fundamental problems with a high speed rail proposal like the Chicago-St. Louis line, though both are entirely solvable.  The first, of course, is the price tag: on the order of $12 billion to fully build out the line.  Whether it's through a Public-Private Partnership (hopefully more artfully executed than the Chicago parking meter debacle,) taxes, bonds, or some combination of all three, the people of Illinois--and Chicago in particular--will have to decide if we have the will to bear a cost that may take a generation to be repaid.  I believe there is, or at least should be.*

The second, more fundamental problem is what all these people will do when they arrive in Chicago--and especially how they will get there.  Part of the case for HSR is that, unlike an airport, it can bring people directly to the center of the city.  They'll arrive at Union Station ready to work, ready to spend, ready to enjoy and add to Chicago's vibrant city life.  At least, that's the idea.  But that supposes that everything they want to do in and around Chicago is accessible without a car.  Put bluntly, Chicago must be a livable city, or else high-speed rail will fail.  The CTA and Metra must meet their--and our--needs.  Walkable, mixed-use development around stations means that whether people are coming to Chicago to re-unite with their friends and family or seal a business deal, they won't need a car.  Dense, beautiful architecture will keep them coming back.  Otherwise, all these people will take the high-speed line to its proposed terminus at O'Hare, rent a car, and add to our congestion and pollution more than our economy.

*UPDATE: I originally wrote this last weekend, before the fine citizens of St. Louis recognized the crucial impact local transit can have on the success of high speed rail, and voted Tuesday to increase their sales tax by ½ cent to pay for it.  What are we waiting for?

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15 Comments

Robertphou@aol.com said:

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Ted, where did you get the 12 billion dollar number for Chi to StLo?
This isn't even up the current Florida estimate for 168mph top speed.
You're absolutely correct though on the local transit aspect.
Regards,
Robert Pulliam
Tubular Rail Inc.
Houston TX
www.tubularrail.com
713 834 7905

Ted Rosenbaum said:

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Robert, in October 2009 the Midwest High Speed Rail Association revised their Infrastructure and Cost report:

http://www.midwesthsr.org/docs/Chicago_StLouis_HSR_Corridor_Study.pdf

You can see the cost breakout on page 29. It lists costs as $12.6 Billion--however, this does not include rolling stock, so this figure would likely inch closer to $13B. As we're looking for a rough order of magnitude estimation right now, the $12B figure is fair, wouldn't you say?

Robertphou@aol.com said:

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...not if your look at the latest numbers out of California for Year of Construction Costs which puts the LA to SF segment at over 100 million dollars a mile. (42.6 billion) for less than 400 miles. Reason foundation also questions these numbers. Based on the ARRA application the cost on a mph standard look like this,

Average speed System miles Total costs Costs per mile
Millions
Ohio
39 mph 255 400 million 1.5
Wisconsin
59 mph 85 820 million 10
Florida
85 mph 84 3.2 Billion 38
California
160 mph 380 – SF to LA 42.6 Billion 101

Ted Rosenbaum said:

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In looking over some of the ARRA application paperwork, I'm not sure where you're getting your numbers from (do you have a link?) but it's important to remember that the $42.6B figure for a SF-LA line which has been thoroughly re-routed and is now more than 100 miles longer than the Illinois line. Some of the routing is because of rampant NIMBYism, and some because of California's natural geography--at least one problem the Chicago-St. Louis line would not need to overcome. There no need for expensive tunnels when you're running across farmland.

Wayne said:

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Ted, give the article on NY Times yesterday(http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/08/business/global/08rail.html), do you think Illinois can do the same thing as California, i.e., get it done with Chinese money and technology?

Ted Rosenbaum said:

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Wayne, Yonah Freemark at the Infrastructurist did a great round-up of all the players in the HSR game, including China: (http://www.infrastructurist.com/2009/11/20/meet-the-train-makers-part-6-china/) While it certainly seems like a possibility, any federal funding that comes with a "Build/Buy American" tag on it could be an issue, especially as groups like France's SNCF scramble to establish manufacturing bases here in the states. With any luck, there will be multiple HSR corridors under construction at the same time, spurring competition and driving prices down.

Robertphou@aol.com said:

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Ted, All of the numbers come from offical documents of the various authorities. I merely compiled the published costs and schedule times to produce the chart. While I do think Ill. construction would be less than Cal. I do think it will be higher than the report states. For instance there is no allocation for the Bridge into St Louis. Also the ability to squeeze into the current rail ROW is doubtful as UP requires a 50' offset not 25' Noise mitigation is another big item. Texas's plan from the early nineties called for a 200' ROW due to noise. (no habitable structures within a 75dba envelope). It can be done in Ill but 220mph will cost more than the 12 billion.

Ted Rosenbaum said:

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Robert, I take your point that there's likely to be some growth around these plans. However, as so many of the details are still undetermined (did the costs even include the necessary upgrades to Chicago's Union Station?) I'm content for now in making the case for improved local transit to supplement the coming high speed line--a case I believe you agree with. As the Chicago-St. Louis line comes closer to breaking ground, I'd be happy to discuss this further though.

Robertphou@aol.com said:

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Here's the problem with the whole Illinois plan. First they upgrade to a possible 110mph, then they have to start over to build to 220mph. The investment in the 110 will not carry over to the 220. So why do the 110? It isn't fast enough to impact highway or air travel to a significant degree. Even worse is Ohio's with its 39mph ave speed for 400 million.

stanleykowalski said:

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What's next, money-saving pontoon bridges over the Chicago river? Do it right or don't do it at all.

These are national projects and they ought to be paid from federal funds. Chicago is well-situated to be a High Speed Rail hub. A line to Milwaukee and Minneapolis should be in the works too. Both Chi-St.Louis and and Chicago-Milwaukee-Minneapolis could be built for the cost of our wars until about Memorial Day.

Roland said:

Greenfield construction in the Midwest is relatively cheap, which is why Illinois has a vastly overbuilt interstate system. Of course, Chicago's expressway network is UNDERbuilt.

At any rate, Amtrak's current Chicago-St. Louis service turns a small operating profit already. Ridership isn't exactly "floundering", especially by Amtrak standards.

Lastly, while funding Chicago transit properly is essential, CTA already operates one of the best transit systems in the US. Visitors can already get around without a car, using either CTA or those wonderful things we call cabs (or walking, fwiw).

Ted Rosenbaum said:

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Roland, I just saw Amtrak's quarterly numbers come out today, and you're right that the Lincoln Line (current Chi-StL service) is one of the few in the nation turning a profit. So while "floundering" may not be great word choice on my part, it's clear improved rail service in the corridor has a sustainable demand.

Robertphou@aol.com said:

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Ted, an OPERATING profit and I am not sure that is all that accurate. A high speed system will have to pay the capital cost and the nationwide system is estimated to approach one trillion dollars. Do you think we can just add that to the national debt?
The CTA needs about 12 billion to get to a state of good repair, about the amount needed by the MWHSR group's estimate. If you had to choose fixing the CTA or building HSR to St Lou. which would you do? You can't have it all.

Ted Rosenbaum said:

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Robert: as the headline to this post suggests (and which you agreed with in your first comment,) the success of HSR will in large part be a function of the livability of the city. So a fix-it-first set of priorities makes the most sense. However, the funding mechanisms for fixing the CTA vs. building a MWHSR network are different because of overlapping jurisdiction. So even though we very likely can't have it all at once, if we don't start making our case we'll never have it.

Robertphou@aol.com said:

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Or you can get behind transportation technology development that will lower the cost of ground based transportation. www.tubularrail.com I need an email and I will send you documents.
robertphou@aol.com

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