Amtrak is thinking big in small-minded times.
At all levels, government is scaling back. One of our political parties has decided that investment in infrastructure is a dangerous, socialistic experiment, and the other one can’t manage to persuade the country otherwise.
So this may not the best moment to pitch a $151 billion bonanza, which is the amount Amtrak would like to spend over the next 28 years bringing high-speed rail to the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor.
But Amtrak is thinking long-term. The government-owned railroad company is betting (or wishing, at any rate) that the political zeitgeist will change, that America someday will rediscover its long-lost love for great public works projects.
Philadelphians should hope Amtrak is right.
On a national level, high-speed rail is no slam-dunk investment. There’s a lot of research out there that suggests that high-speed rail costs more than it generates in increased economic activity. And in some car-dependent areas, such as California, Texas, and Florida, there are legitimate worries that people are too accustomed to driving as a way of life to switch en masse to trains.
But the Northeast is a train-loving region, with a long rail-riding tradition. If Amtrak builds it here, people will come.
And while the return on investment may indeed be bad in other sections of the country, high-speed rail would work economic wonders in Philadelphia. In fact, perhaps no city in the nation would benefit more from a fast, modern, intercity rail network.
Why? Two reasons. Geography and Philadelphia’s comparatively cheap and plentiful housing stock.
Amtrak predicts that a ride from Philadelphia to New York would take just 37 minutes after its proposed system is completed, down from the 70 minutes that the fastest Acela Express trip takes today. Washington would be just 54 minutes away, reduced from the 93-minute minimum of 2012.
What does that mean? If Amtrak has its way, New York and Washington would be within easy commuting distance of Philadelphia.
Consider that residents of the metro New York area already spend an average of 35 minutes getting to their jobs each morning (51 minutes for those on public transit).
With 37-minute Amtrak service, Philadelphia-to-New York becomes a realistic daily commute. Instead of shelling out $1 million-plus for a north Brooklyn fixer-upper, well-off New Yorkers could relocate to Philadelphia, buy a massive University City Victorian or a Rittenhouse condo for half the price, and commute to a Midtown office in about an hour, door to door.
There’s a downside to that fantasy, of course. Philadelphia is no town’s suburb, and the whole notion of sixth-boroughdom makes the skin crawl. Already, there is grumbling about the Brooklynification of parts of Philadelphia, and that’s with only 4,450 New Yorkers having resettled here in the last five years (according to census figures, which put the margin of error on that estimate at 1,450).
But Philadelphia needs more residents, even if they hail from New York. As a poor city, it particularly needs more wealthy and upper-middle-class residents – residents who pump up tax collections and consume fewer public services. The kind of residents, in other words, who could afford an Amtrak monthly high-speed-rail pass.
Over time, such new Philadelphians would improve the city’s appeal to would-be employers. Get enough of them here, retain enough of the region’s college graduates, and eventually, you just might have a labor pool strong enough to entice a few companies to do business in Philadelphia instead of New York.
Even some high-speed-rail critics, like the Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser, acknowledge that bullet trains would be a win for Philadelphia. In a 2009 article for the New York Times Economix blog, he called Philadelphia a “natural beneficiary” of an upgraded Northeast Corridor, precisely because it would make the city’s low-cost-housing stock appealing to commuting New Yorkers.
Still, Glaeser, generally a champion of cities, thinks the exorbitant costs of high-speed rail far outweigh the benefits, at least from the national perspective. He may be right. There are many uncertainties about the economics of high-speed rail in the United States, simply because our experience with it is so limited.
The ambiguous national economic benefits of high-speed rail make it politically easy to oppose, particularly within the GOP. As a conservative Republican on the Senate’s transportation committee, Pat Toomey is in a position to change minds. But that doesn’t seem likely.
“The idea of high-speed rail is intriguing,” he said through a spokeswoman, “but I have doubts that Amtrak has demonstrated the ability to manage and execute it in an economically friendly manner.”
For now, then, even Republicans representing the states that stand to benefit most from high-speed rail are leery. But I wonder if that will hold true in the long run. America’s love affair with the automobile isn’t as passionate as it used to be, thanks to rising fuel prices and roadway congestion and the ongoing population shift back to the cities, where car ownership can be a costly hassle.
So long as those trends continue, high-speed rail may begin to make real economic and political sense, and not just for Philadelphia.