New Study Calls for Focusing HSR Investment in Northeast and California

Sep 27th, 2011 | Posted by

The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy is out with a new study titled “High Speed Rail: International Lessons for U.S. Policymakers. One of its authors, Petra Todorovich of America 2050, is also a leading high speed rail advocate who has done some excellent work in DC. But here she and her team have put together a good overview of HSR internationally and what lessons could be learned for the US.

In a meeting in Boston to unveil the study, Todorovich had a good perspective on the recent political problems HSR has faced in Congress:

“We see this as a generational investment, and minor setbacks from year to year are completely to be expected,” Todorovich said. “The interstate highway system did not get started until a dozen years after it was proposed.”

Not only does the study call for focusing American investment on the California and the Northeast Corridor HSR projects, owing to their population and existing passenger rail ridership, it also lays out some possible federal funding mechanisms:

• Raise the gas tax by 15 cents a gallon or more. Each additional cent of gas tax generates approximately $1.4 billion annually. Several cents could be devoted to passenger rail.

• Add a $1 surcharge on current passenger rail tickets to produce approximately $29 million annually. Though this is a relatively small amount of revenue, it could become an important source of funds for expanding and maintaining the system as passenger rail ridership grows.

• Or, shift from a national gas tax to a percentage tax on crude oil and imported refined petroleum products consumed in the United States to fund all the nation’s transportation needs. RAND estimated that an oil tax of 17 percent would generate approximately $83 billion a year (at mid- summer 2010 prices of $72 per barrel). Five billion dollars of this amount could be dedicated to passenger rail.

Alternatively, if the federal government switched from the current gas tax to a tax based on vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and two-tenths of a penny per mile were dedicated to passenger rail, $5.4 billion could be generated every year. The VMT tax as a source of transportation funding is supported by many transportation policy leaders, but has been disavowed by the Obama administration.

Former Interior secretary and Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt has proposed that a gasoline tax surcharge in the Northeast Corridor states could pay for high-speed rail in that region. This alternative has the advantage of explicitly linking the revenue sources to beneficiaries of the system. Other regional taxes, such as a payroll tax on businesses along the corridor, could also be considered. Such a tax is now used in downstate New York to help fund New York City Transit.

While Tea Party control of the House means none of these stand a chance anytime soon, the underlying need to invest in sustainable transportation does mean that eventually one or more of these will be adopted in order to help fund high speed rail.

One possibility would be for a shift in the California gas tax to one based on vehicle miles traveled. Of course, VMT is either stagnant or in decline in many places in California, so this wouldn’t necessarily grow in revenue over time. But it could be an additional source of revenue, and transportation officials in California, Oregon and Washington have already endorsed the concept.

Overall the report doesn’t break much new ground, but as an overview of the policy options available, it is a very worthwhile document.

  1. Alon Levy
    Sep 27th, 2011 at 22:06

    Meh. The problem is that the study told me nothing I didn’t know before, and had an unusually low ratio of actual information to glossy maps of megaregions. Basically, what they’re saying is “Spend all those $100 billion Amtrak thinks it needs, and build CAHSR.” When the Washington Post writes something of this quality, we rightly deride it as stenography and wish for real journalism.

  2. Paulus Magnus
    Sep 27th, 2011 at 22:13

    Prop 1A barely passed as is, trying to pay for HSR via CA taxes, especially higher fuel or vehicle taxes, is highly likely to backfire.

  3. adirondacker12800
    Sep 28th, 2011 at 00:24

    This alternative has the advantage of explicitly linking the revenue sources to beneficiaries of the system.

    Okay. Californians then gets to ask why they get to pay taxes to fund things that benefit people in North Dakota.
    Or have people in the Northeast ask the same kind of rude question. You really don’t want New Jerseyans to examine that proposition closely. … Assuming I did my arithmetic right New Jerseyans could have paid for the ARC project with 4 months worth of taxes they pay to the Federal Government but don’t get back in benefits. Or pay for the 2050 full-fat HSR plan Amtrak has for the NEC in 4 years. Someone else can go look up the numbers for California and see how many months it would take for California to come up with 43 billion dollars for HSR.

    The Red states busy sucking at the Federal tit while simultaneously whining about being over taxed should be gung ho for HSR, more productive people make more income to tax.

    Donk Reply:

    We should seriously have a partition of the U.S. The West Coast and North East Coast can form one country, just like West Pakistan and East Pakistan did. I know it didn’t end that well for Pakistan and Bangladesh, but you get the idea.

    VBobier Reply:

    Seriously a partition of the US? That’s not going to happen.

    Donk Reply:

    Ok not seriously.

    joe Reply:

    They will try to partition the US by cutting down the center.


    Mike Brennan Reply:

    “The Red states busy sucking at the Federal tit while simultaneously whining about being over taxed should be gung ho for HSR, more productive people make more income to tax.”

    Best comment I’ve read on here in a long time :)

    Andre Peretti Reply:

    “should be gung ho for HSR, more productive people make more income to tax”
    The French were surprised to learn that the International Labor Organization ranked French workers’ productivity 2nd in G7 countries just after the US (1st). This, in spite of the French having a 35-hour workweek and a minimum of 4 weeks employer-paid vacation.
    A Paris-based American economist attributed the higher productivity to the high quality of French infrastructure.
    So, if he is right, HSR could make the American workers even more productive. Or allow them to be as productive and work less. (Sorry, I think working less in unamerican).

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Sigh. Back in the 70s the covers of Newsweek and Time had cover stories about what would happen when, because of our increasing productivity, the work week dropped to 35 hours and then to 30. Either that or our wages would climb or both. Funny how neither happened. The work week for Americans has been drifting up and wages have been drifting down.

    Andre Peretti Reply:

    The French are so attached to their long summer vacation that all financial incitements to shorten them have fallen flat.
    In July, you will see freeways with their three southbound lanes totally congested while the other three are nearly empty. Millions heading for the sun to forget about it all for a month.
    France will always lag behind the US economically because the French will rather have time than money.

  4. TomW
    Sep 28th, 2011 at 06:24

    “Add a $1 surcharge on current passenger rail tickets to produce approximately $29 million annually”
    Why single out Amtrak? What about LIRR, Metro-North, SEPTA, NJT, MBTA and Metra? Add those into the mix, and you’d get over $400m annually.

    James Reply:

    Any version that is limited to a fixed amount will soon be left behind by inflation. A percentage tax or fee is a better method. A tax on crude oil is interesting in that it would rise with the price of oil to help offset the eventual future drop in demand. Manhattan must have a conveniently large payroll base. Different methods make sense for different regions, and a balanced combination makes more sense so, for example, payroll does not have to carry all the cost of tourist and other usage. Even a balance of local and national funding makes sense. Human nature assigns value to how much direct cost is felt; user fees make sense as part of the balance.

    What we do not need is to hear 20 years from now “woops, we seem to have pissed away a few billion on some stupid mistakes or consultant fees”. Cost of doing business is on thing, it would be nice for once to avoid excessive greed.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Great, it’ll be just like the national gas tax: drive on a local street, pay for the construction of Interstates.

    joe Reply:

    Yeah – like paying the income tax which then goes to.. uh for uhhh…

    1. We didn’t build interstates with gasoline taxes.
    2. The surcharge can be used for rail or not – the point is the tax produces revenue that can be used to improve rail or buy fighter jets. We get to advocate it is used for rail.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    The US Highway Trust Fund is funded primarily with gas taxes. The gas taxes come from all roads, including ones that are ineligible for its funds, and this way the trust fund stays solvent most years and makes all the highway boosters think highways pay for themselves.

    As for a tax on rail, can we maybe not tax people for riding trains? If the government is keen to make rail riders pay more of the cost of trains, I suggest cutting Amtrak’s subsidy so that it has to raise fares to make up the difference – or, better yet, run trains with 1 conductor rather than 3.

  5. Loren Petrich
    Sep 28th, 2011 at 06:36

    That seems overly simplistic and not very good politics. Spreading the pork around is good for getting support, because politicians can then brag about bringing home the bacon to their districts. So which other places might be good?

    I nominate the Chicago area, which might be called Greater Chicagoland. In particular, I nominate Chicago – St. Louis.

    Other good lines, I think, are Seattle – Portland, Richmond – Charlotte, and NYC – Albany – Buffalo. Texas, Florida, and Ohio lines will have to wait for non-teabagger governors.

    Donk Reply:

    NYC-Albany-Buffalo? Really? Albany has a population <100K. Buffalo < 300K.

    Peter Reply:

    NYC-Albany-Buffalo makes no sense for 220 mph.

    It may make sense for 110-125 mph if Toronto is included.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    If Buffalo-New York City makes no sense than neither does San Francisco to Los Angeles. Very very roughly comparable distances and more population.

    Peter Reply:

    What are the populations of the major cities in between?

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Very very roughly a quarter of the population of the US lives north and east of St. Louis. In the Northeast and Midwest you are practically tripping over metro areas big enough and close enough for HSR to make sense.

    Piddly little metro Albany with roughly a million people in it is, in nice round numbers, 150 miles from from metro New York City with it’s 19 million, 250 from Philadelphia with it’s 7 million, 175 from Boston with it’s 7 million, throw in Toronto which is under 400 miles for it’s 5 million and Montreal at roughly 250 and it’s 4 million. Syracuse with it’s 650k and Rochester with it’s million get to all those places too. Albany to Washington DC is 375. Under the magic 400 mile HSR range.

    19 metro New York
    7 ” Philadelphia
    7 ” Boston
    5 ” Toronto
    4 ” Montreal
    42 million

    Very very roughly the population of California, Nevada and Arizona because we haven’t added in places like Syracuse, Rochester, Hartford and Springfield. And ignored Binghamton, Scranton-Wilke Barre and Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton and trips from Albany to Balitmore or Washington DC.
    Right now with creaky old Amtrak service between Albany and New York and sorta kinda fast for 1955 service between New York and Washington DC, the fastest way to get to DC without getting on a plane and it’s very expensive fare is to take the train.

    Or look at it another way there’s 66 million people in the Midwest within HSR range of the 55 million people living in the Northeast. Almost no one is going to take the train from Minneapolis to Washington DC but there’s well over a 100 million people between Minneapolis, St Louis, Montreal, Boston and DC.

    Build Buffalo to Cleveland and you get Cleveland to Toronto, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany. Might get Cleveland-Boston and Cleveland-NY out of it. You get Schenectady to Worcester. Saratoga Springs to Erie. Rochester to Toledo….. Build Cleveland to Pittsburgh and you get Cleveland to Philadelphia and an alternate route for Cleveland to NY. And Cleveland to Baltimore and DC. Detroit to Pittsburgh…..

    Or have a look at this

    HSTSheldon Reply:

    Correct Adirondacker. The entire Northeastern quadrant of the US is HSR territory. Roughly every 200 miles ore so there is a sizable city of well over 1 million and in between are decent mid sized cities as well. Express HSR is feasible from NYC all the way to as far west as about St. Louis, MOIt is theoretically feasible to build Express HSR along the LSL route from NYC to Chicago with a 6 – 7 hour run time. At those trip times, I estimate about 20 to 25% of current flyers would migrate to HSR. .

    Alon Levy Reply:

    LSL route? No love for Philly and Pittsburgh?

    Loren Petrich Reply:

    The LSL route doesn’t require tunneling through the mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania. I grew up in PA — I have direct experience of that state’s topography. Philly to Harrisburg is OK terrain, it’s Harrisburg to Pittsburgh to Ohio that’s the problem.

    The existing line is rather twisty and trains on it rather slow, for obvious reasons. The LSL route is the Water Level Route, and trains can go faster on it. So it’s about neck and neck, and that helped the New York Central compete with the Pennsylvania Railroad way back when.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Sure, but a) there should be HSR from Philly to Pittsburgh, b) by the standards of what California is building, the Appalachians are no big deal, and c) the LSL route is good for medium speed but full speed requires heavy suburban tunneling between New York and southern Dutchess County.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    On the contrary – adding Toronto isn’t going to add too much to the mix, not with the current amount of travel between New York and Toronto.

    The populations of the metro areas on the Empire Corridor are decent by European standards. On one line you connect New York with Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo, each with about a million people in the metro area.

    On the other hand, building full-fat HSR in New York State has easy and hard segments, and the hardest segment is one that can be done on upgraded 160-200 km/h shared tracks well. North of Poughkeepsie, the terrain is pretty flat, and west of Albany I-90 and the legacy route offer a decent ROW between them. South of Poughkeepsie, the hills make it impossible to cut off the legacy line without major tunnels or to significantly straighten the legacy line; however, the legacy line has room for four tracks all the way and can support decent speeds.

    jim Reply:

    Of course, on the legacy line there’s the standard Metro-North problem south of Croton-Harmon.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Yeah, but not nearly as much as on the New Haven Line. New York maintains its lines properly, unlike Connecticut; although there’s a blanket 90 mph limit, the track quality is decent enough that trains can maintain this speed all the way to Croton-Harmon. In addition the line has much less traffic than the New Haven Line, so Metro-North might be less averse to higher speeds there.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Turboliners made it between Albany and Grand Central in 2:10. We’d have find someone with an Amtrak employee timetable from that era to see what they were doing.
    Metro North has no incentive to maintain track speeds above 90, their trains can’t go faster. Even if they wanted to go out and buy 125MPH trains there’s issues with running trains off third rail above 90 or so.
    …put in catenary and Metro North could run ALP46As at 125 to Poughkeepsie. Shave off a few minutes.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    The M7s can do 100, no?

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Yes just like Acela can do 165. You don’t want to run equipment flat out in regular service.

    HSTSheldon Reply:

    I disagree. Adding 4+ million population Toronto will significantly change the travel landscape in the Northeast, especially if Cleveland and by extension Chicago is then hooked into the system. You then have 4 hour rail access from Toronto to Chicago, 3+ hours from Toronto to NY. There is already a sizable amount of traffic from Toronto to NYC by road and a decent amount to Philly and Washington DC also. The only argument that may have merit are the border processing issues. Remember also that Niagara Falls ON and Niagara Falls NY suddenly become very appealing business conference destinations.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    If Toronto were an American metro area, you’d be right. But it’s not, and the NY-Toronto air market substantially underperforms relative to domestic air markets of comparable populations and distances.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    But the same tracks will serve Buffalo-Toronto and Rochester-Toronto and Syracuse-Toronto and Albany- Toronto. It’s going to be really cheap to build because you have build something all the way between the station in Niagara Falls NY and the station in Niagara Falls ON.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Sure, and depending on how flexible Canada is about mixed traffic, this could be cheap. But building a greenfield HSR route even from Buffalo to Toronto may not be as great as people believe. Toronto is large enough that it will probably be successful, but it’s not going to be a great traffic anchor. In particular, NY-Buffalo is going to do fine without it.

    Donk Reply:

    Alon and Adirondaker – you guys should go out and get some beers together.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica and Albany all have suburbs.

    jim Reply:

    It partially depends on context. Even if (and Adirondacker clearly contests this) a standalone NYC-Buffalo 220mph+ line doesn’t make sense, if there’s already (a plan for) a Chicago-Cleveland 220mph+, then NYC-Buffalo plus a connecting Buffalo-Cleveland segment looks a lot better. It would create an NYC-Chicago high speed corridor paralleling the LSL route. While NYC-Chicago would take six to seven hours (and Washington-Chicago over eight), so that there’d be relatively few end to end passengers, there’d be enough between intermediate stops and the ends to justify the route.

    Similarly, if Canada ever does get round to building a Montreal-Ottowa-Toronto HSL (and the border crossing issues can be resolved), there’s an argument that an HSL running from NYC through Albany and Syracuse to a junction with the Canadian HSL would make sense, and once you have that, putting in a spur from Syracuse to Rochester and Buffalo would add more value than its incremental cost.

    I’m trying to think of a California parallel. Perhaps that an LA-Sacramento HSL wouldn’t make sense on its own, but once there’s an LA-SF line, the argument for a spur to Sacramento becomes overwhelming.

    Network effects are real.

  6. David
    Sep 28th, 2011 at 09:34

    Air ticket taxes proposed, flyers pay only 43% of TSA’s cost

    “Big airlines say people would buy fewer tickets if Congress approves the president’s proposal to help cut the deficit and pay for the nation’s aviation system.

    Regional airlines, which carry more than half of domestic fliers each day, say it could force them to pull out of small cities.”

    Donk Reply:

    No more subsidizing small cities. If the small cities can’t survive without subsidies, they should close up shop, move elsewhere, and revert to using that area for farmland. Or maybe for the buffalo commons project.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    Or we could just get rid of the TSA, or scale them back dramatically. We could start by selling off the backscatter machines.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Sell them to who?

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Britain, maybe. It’s as determined as the US is to make air travel literally titillating.

  7. Mark
    Sep 28th, 2011 at 10:33

    Unfortunately, the poltical trends shaping up for the 2012 elections are looking like they could make the CAHSR discussion irrelevant as the Republicans are gaining momentum and at this point could potentially take all three branches of government. I appreciate Robert’s optimism on the Dems prospects in 2012 but things certainly aren’t trending that way and it doesn’t look like the economy is going to be much of a help either….

    synonymouse Reply:

    A Republican or even a TeaParty takeover does not necessarily spell the end of improved passenger rail, which has enduring support throughout the US. Amtrak did not come to an end even under Reagan.

    The real issue is solidly planned and genuinely needed projects versus the poorly conceived. The SF Central Subway is a sterling example of the latter. Clearly the quality of City management has deteriorated. Muni should have been able to correct this scheme before it got to the digging stage. Now it is too late to modify. Still Herrera and others are right to keep on ragging on this crappy plan as it will be such a dysfunctional waste.

    As risky as it may be, perhaps consolidation, or going regional or statewide, may be the only other possibility. If BART, as disreputable as we all know it is, had a handle on Muni it might have been big enough to veto Rose Pak’s idiocy. Similarly turning the hsr over to Caltrans might be the best of all sub-optimal worlds.

    Donk Reply:

    We are still over a year away from the election. Anything that anyone says about the odds for Obama, the Senate, or House, or the 2012 World Series champion, is meaningless.

    VBobier Reply:

    Much less December 21st 2012 and all.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    Anything can happen at this point. 2012 will be very volatile.

  8. Khadgars
    Sep 28th, 2011 at 19:12

    Interesting discussions going on here. I’ve been following CAHSR for quite a while and am really pulling for it, what do you think the odds are that construction will begin next year?

  9. datacruncher
    Sep 28th, 2011 at 20:06

    Just saw this – “Building a high-speed train route over the Grapevine instead of through the Antelope Valley could save up to $4 billion, according to a July progress report released Wednesday….But missing from the conceptual study, as of July anyway, was a close look at what effect a Grapevine route would have on the project’s overall economics. “More detailed analysis of ridership and revenue figures is required to complete the analysis between the Grapevine and Antelope Valley Alternatives,” engineers with Parsons Brinckerhoff wrote in the July update released Wednesday by Bay Area opponents of the project.”

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    This is the sort of juggling act you deal with in a project like this. Do you go for high speed and limited stops, and bypass potential traffic sources in the middle of the route? Or do you attempt to serve them, and potentially hurt your terminal-to-terminal traffic?

    It’s said that politics is the art of compromise. In this case, the same can be said for engineering.

  10. D. P. Lubic
    Sep 28th, 2011 at 20:37

    Just for fun–ran into this, a sort of steam punk “handcar regatta” in Sonoma County, on the right of way of a proposed SMART route:

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