Donald Fry: Northeast needs more attention from federal rail planners

By Donald C. Fry

Major business advocacy organizations from Maine to Virginia, including the Greater Baltimore Committee, are urging the U.S. Department of Transportation to fund and lead an $18.8 million planning effort for strengthening high-speed rail resources and related transportation modes in the heavily-traveled northeast corridor.

Representatives of more than 30 business and civic groups in the northeast signed a June 22 letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood urging the funding of a planning proposal submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in May by top transportation officials from 11 northeast states including Maryland.

The proposal vies for a portion of $50 million the FRA made available from its High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program to fund planning activities from groups of states interested in engaging in a multi-modal planning project that would result in a model “passenger rail corridor investment plan.”

The multi-state planning funds are part of $2.3 billion in new high-speed rail grant funding the federal government announced in January. The multi-state planning applications were due in May. Applications to access more than $2 billion in new federal funding for additional intercity high-speed rail projects are due in August.

This fresh process gives the federal government an opportunity to adjust its funding priorities relating to the northeast rail corridor, which in January received only $485 million of $8 billion in stimulus funding for high-speed rail projects across the country – by far the least amount awarded to four U.S. regions.

If there is any region on which the federal government should focus its initial round of high-speed rail funding, it would be the northeast corridor, which has a population of 55 million and a $2 trillion annual economy.

The Wall Street Journal ranks the U.S. northeast as the world’s second-largest mega-region, behind only Greater Tokyo.

Railroads in the northeast corridor move more than 259 million passengers per year. In the next 20 years passenger rail ridership in the corridor is forecast to increase by 59 percent to 412 million riders per year.

However, the region faces major congestion and capacity constraints that, if not addressed, “have the potential to curtail future mobility, lead to slowing economic growth, and place the northeast at a competitive disadvantage to other regions of the U.S. and the world,” states the northeast multi-modal planning proposal submitted to the Federal Rail Administration.

Amtrak’s northeast rail corridor master plan, recently developed in coordination with the transportation departments from northeast states, identifies $43 billion in infrastructure investment that is needed in the next 20 years to address current project backlogs and projected growth. This includes $8 billion in capital investment needed just between Newark, Del., and Washington, D.C., a segment that received only $48 million in stimulus funding.

More than $3 billion in major bridge and track capital investments are needed in the Maryland rail corridor. They include replacing three major Amtrak bridges over the Susquehanna, Bush, and Gunpowder rivers — all of which are beyond their useful lives, according to Amtrak. Another $3.5 billion in improvements to Baltimore’s Penn Station are needed, which includes building a new commuter and intercity rail tunnel to replace the Baltimore and Potomac tunnel, which was built in 1873.

You get the picture. The rail infrastructure of the populous northeast corridor, which now carries more than 50 percent of the nation’s intercity rail riders in a region that produces 20 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product, is in need of more attention from the nation’s transportation decision makers.

They could start by fully funding the proposed 11-state northeast multi-modal planning process that is now before them and making it the model for our country’s belated, but necessary entry into the world of high-speed rail.

Bringing true high-speed rail to this corridor must be a national priority, not an afterthought.

Letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation from The Business Alliance for Northeast Mobility.

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