Is New York Giving Up on HSR?
New York City is the centerpiece of America’s only high speed rail route. The Amtrak Acela has a top speed of 150 mph, though it has to often go slower on older tracks, and is profitable. Upgrading the Acela corridor to handle higher speeds is a priority that even Republicans agree on.
But New York State includes more than just NYC. Millions of people live “upstate,” which includes major metro areas like Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo. For the state as a whole, connecting them with high speed rail is also an important priority – just as connecting the state with a canal was an important priority 200 years ago.
New York State has plans to provide a high speed rail connection linking everything from Niagara Falls to Manhattan. But those plans appear to have become a very low priority in recent years:
On Tuesday, following months of delays, the Federal Railroad Administration quietly posted to its website a New York State study study outlining five different options for “high speed rail” connecting New York City to Niagara Falls.
The study was supposed to have been released in June, after it was reviewed by the federal government, and as recently as this morning, New York State’s transportation commissioner was apparently still unaware that the review was complete.
The issue, as Capital New York explains, is that political leaders in New York State appear to have lost interest in high speed rail. Andrew Cuomo pledged to make it a priority when he ran for governor in 2010, but in office he has done hardly anything to advance efforts.
It’s not for lack of need:
The state’s existing passenger rail service has “inadequate service levels,” according to the study.
“For example, the trip from Buffalo to New York City can be made in less than two hours by air and under seven hours by car, compared to approximately eight hours by the existing Empire Corridor passenger service provided by Amtrak.”
Trains too often run late and infrequently.
Nevertheless, ridership continues to increase and congestion is expected to worsen “as demand for intercity passenger, commuter, and freight rail services all continue to grow.”
The goal of the state’s High Speed Rail Empire State Corridor Program is to transform the Empire Corridor from a lumbering, inadequate system into one that is frequent, punctual and fast.
But the five options proposed in the study fall short of what was intended back in 2009 when the plans were initially launched:
The first option is the no-build one. Two options would allow speeds of up to 90 miles per hour, and the final two would in some sections allows speeds along the corridor of up to 110 mph and 125 mph, respectively….
The state, working with the federal government, has whittled down ten initial options to the aforementioned five, and discarded every option that would entail maximum speeds of 160 mph and 220 mph—in other words, high-speed rail of the sort they have in countries that care more about infrastructure.
The “very high speed” alternatives “were rejected for their extremely high cost—nearly triple the next most costly alternative—the likelihood of significant community and environmental impacts, and significant engineering design difficulties necessary to create a sufficiently straight track alignment to permit those speeds,” the report reads.
The article goes into some detail on those plans, but the point isn’t really about the specific options. It’s unclear whether there is any interest in New York State in actually building anything at all, no matter the speed. And the fastest options were already taken off the table.
It’s possible that one of the two higher speed options could be adopted, funded, and built. But the lack of political support would suggest that’s unlikely. It isn’t that New York leaders balked at the cost or at the need. It’s that they’ve lost a sense of urgency.
That story can be seen across the country, in a variety of ways, whether it’s HSR, climate action, fossil fuel reduction, or lasting economic prosperity. In 2008 and 2009 it looked like our country was going to address the serious problems that had arisen – high fuel prices, the climate crisis, financial crises, inequality, and job loss. But in 2009 a reaction began, determined to block any efforts to address those issues in defense of those who benefited from the status quo.
Slowly but surely, the promising solutions of the late ’00s were scaled back. Here in the mid-teens, America struggles to sustain those efforts while the radicals in Congress and in many state governments are working to dismantle the basic pieces of modern society.
California’s high speed rail project has suffered from this counterattack as well. But at least it’s far enough along to where it just might survive. New York State now has some HSR plans. But whether the political will to build them has survived is a very open question.