“We know that there are benefits of many kinds, and certainly one of them of is the newfound access for the workforce to more jobs in more markets,” says Marilyn Jordan Taylor, dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design and partner in charge of the urban design and planning practice at Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP. “It creates job mobility for people without forcing those people to move.”
Taylor, who along with Yaro teaches a seminar about high-speed rail at Penn, isn’t just basing that claim on her years of work in the transportation industry. In fact, evidence from her own students — who recently produced a report about high-speed rail that helped inform Amtrak’s long-term vision — and from researchers overseas, including the United Kingdom, corroborate her views.
Yaro notes that Sir Peter Hall, a celebrated transportation expert at University College in London, has spent years studying the impact of the U.K.’s various high-speed rail initiatives. And according to Hall’s work, there is simply no denying these projects’ impacts: High-speed rail in the U.K. has created new opportunities both for workers along the lines and for the cities and towns they serve. “Hall was looking at the benefits for cities that were brought [closer] to London with the addition of the high-speed rail,” he says. “And the results were pretty dramatic — not in every city, but almost every city. Those cities that benefited saw improved numbers for employment, for rental rates, for payrolls. So the conclusion was that high-speed rail is basically an ‘enabler.’ It doesn’t guarantee that these kinds of places will turn around, but it does enable them to do so. In most cases, it delivers.”
In part because of the success of past projects, the U.K. is now moving forward on the so-called HS2 project, which aims to more closely link London to the cities of the Midlands, including Birmingham. “The British were the last developed country, along with [the U.S.], to develop a high-speed rail plan, and while they did make the case that such a system would be the most energy efficient way to get between [London and the Midlands], the primary reason for building this was to bring the cities in the Midlands into the business shed of London, and therefore improve their economies,” Taylor notes. “Here in the Northeast, we have New York, which is always among the list of the Top 10 most important economies in the world, as well as Boston and Washington, D.C. If we could provide high-speed service here, it would unite, for instance, the Philadelphia economy much more closely with the New York economy, to the benefit of both.”
The California Victory
It was that kind of argument that helped rail advocates in California win an important victory earlier this summer — one that could see the Golden State become the first to use truly high-speed rail to connect two of its most important cities.
In early July, California lawmakers voted to move forward with a $68 billion plan to build a new high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, expected to be completed by 2028. The project, which will be funded with a combination of state bonds, federal money and private investment (though most of that private investment has yet to be identified), has been criticized as an enormous waste of taxpayers’ dollars by those opposed. But proponents, including California governor Jerry Brown, insist that, along with reducing traffic, slashing CO2 emissions by as much as three million tons a year and saving 237 million gallons of gasoline annually, the project would benefit not only the major municipalities at each terminus, but the smaller communities in between.