If there is an obvious shortcoming in Amtrak's $117 billion vision for bringing genuine high-speed rail to the Northeast (aside from the means to pay for it, of course) it's the lengthy 30-year timetable to accomplish it. A far greater sense of urgency is in order.
Europe and Japan have long embraced trains that travel at speeds of 200 mph or faster. China recently unveiled a train running between Shanghai and Xinhua capable of running as fast as 259 mph. The Chinese are investing hundreds of billions in high-speed rail.
By comparison, the much-touted $8 billion in high-speed rail President Barack Obama put in the stimulus package is little more than a down payment on a caboose. Today, Amtrak's Acela Express trains may be capable of going 150 mph, but mostly they poke along the Northeast corridor between Washington and Boston at much slower speeds, thanks to the limits imposed by congestion, dated track and signal systems and obstacles like the bottleneck at our own Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, where trains can go no faster than 30 mph.
Amtrak's expenditures in the Northeast pale compared to what other countries have invested in passenger rail. Amtrak's annual budget is about $3.5 billion, with less than half coming from taxpayers and only a smaller fraction of that on capital projects. Yet, Amtrak expenditures are always controversial and will likely be under attack by deficit hawks again next year.
Such thinking is incredibly shortsighted. High-speed trains are more energy efficient and better for the environment than most alternatives. Within the U.S., the Northeast, with its densely populated cities strung relatively close together, is the ideal candidate for such service.
Even with its current limitations, Amtrak service in the Northeast has been a success story. Imagine how much better it would be, however, if travel time between Baltimore and New York was reduced to less than 90 minutes instead of 21/2 hours.
Those kinds of travel times could be an economic boon to the region. Imagine getting on a train and arriving in downtown D.C. faster than someone could drive from Owings Mills to White Marsh. Or travel from Pennsylvania Station to Philadelphia in similar fashion. Few investments in economic development could produce a better return for Maryland. The 120,000 jobs the project is projected to create should not be ignored either.
Certainly, it would be costly. Replacing the B&P alone is expected to require at least a half-billion dollars. And while regional high-speed rail could attract some private investment, as Amtrak's president has speculated, most of the cost would likely have to be borne by taxpayers — as similar rail projects in other countries have.
But using tax dollars to upgrade passenger rail service is little different from government spending on roads, bridges, airports and ports. Every economic superpower in the world has chosen to make this investment in high-speed rail. The real question is: How long can America remain competitive in the 21st century global marketplace if it does not?