Imagine riding from Philadelphia to New York in only 37 minutes, or from Boston to Washington, D.C., in just three hours on a cutting-edge, high-speed transportation network linking every major city in the Northeast — essentially, a rail-centric economic “mega-region.”
Those are just some of the promises behind Amtrak’s ambitious new high-speed rail proposal for the Northeast Corridor — the railway stretch between Boston and Washington D.C. Under the plan, the aging, crowded infrastructure of the region’s existing rail system would be replaced by a network on par with the most advanced systems in the world. According to Amtrak, the project — which would be completed by 2040 — would ensure the economic viability of the region for decades to come, cementing its status as one of the most important business districts in the United States.
To many observers, that sounds wonderful in theory. But there’s just one problem: The cost. Amtrak — which for years has drawn criticism for its inability to turn a profit — has admitted that its newest vision would cost a staggering $151 billion, most of which would come from government funding. That’s a massive price to pay at a time when the federal government is struggling to find ways to deliver on such entitlement programs as Social Security and Medicare.
Yet Amtrak executives say that the investment, like investments that have been made in high-speed rail elsewhere in the world, would prove to be well worth it. According to experts at Wharton and the University of Pennsylvania, the massive project does in fact hold vast economic potential, and could, over the long haul, help revive local economies, improve employment numbers and generate greater productivity up and down the Corridor, while at the same time alleviating congested roadways and airspace. Those exact same arguments, they note, have been borne out by recent high-speed rail successes in the United Kingdom, and were also used by high-speed rail backers in California to win approval in early July for a multibillion-dollar line between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
At the same time, these experts add, there’s no easy way to predict the economic benefits of these projects. That’s because, when it comes to high-speed rail, “economic benefits” are apparently difficult to define — making the sales pitch for any high-speed rail project almost as difficult as building one.
“The benefits [of the Amtrak] project are pretty diverse,” says Robert Yaro, a practice professor in city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. “We wouldn’t be the first country to do this, as basically every other major industrialized country is already moving along with improvements of this kind. But yes, the economics are hard to get at. They are fairly long-range and fairly diffuse.”
“It’s tough to convince people that just because you have a positive cost-benefit ratio, a project is worthwhile. Most people have a hard time seeing that,” notes W. Bruce Allen, an emeritus professor of business economics and public policy at Wharton. For example, “if you try to tell [someone] that so-called ‘time benefits’ are worth so much money, they’ll ask you, ‘Well, can I see that? Is that real money?'” Although high speed rails shorten commuter times considerably, such factors as “time saved” and “increased productivity” are not necessarily “real” money to the average citizen, Allen points out — and as a result, not to the politicians holding the purse strings, either.
But Allen, who has spent years studying rail systems worldwide, says he’s convinced that Amtrak’s proposed high-speed rail project could — like the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line proposal has promised — truly revolutionize the way business is done along the Corridor. He adds, however, that most Americans probably have their doubts, and many politicians have legitimate concerns about the enormous outlay of public funding. Furthermore, well-publicized accidents, such as a 2011 high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou, China, have shown that these advanced rail systems are not immune to tragedy.