This post is more of a thought experiment than an in-depth case study–so you won’t find my usual assortment of links, maps (though having Google Maps handy might be useful), etc. Something a little quicker, and a little different. It’s inspired by some musing I’ve been doing, and by this post from a while ago at Pedestrian Observations.
It seems to me that the Northeast US should have one, unified authority to govern and coordinate intercity rail transit. Obviously given funding deficits and general political and bureaucratic dysfunction, that’s a little bit in the world of dreamland, but let’s play it out a little. A lot of ink has been spilled about regionalization as a solution to the woes of the Northeast Corridor, but I’m going to concentrate here on less prominent lines and services, which perhaps could benefit even more from interstate cooperation.
The Northeast–which I’m defining as the New England states, plus New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and DC (given Virginia’s current friendliness to, and success with, passenger rail, we could throw them in there too, but I’m not for now)–is currently experiencing something of a slow, unsteady renaissance in intercity passenger rail service. The last twenty years have seen a lot of dreams, and even a few successes: the electrification of the NEC from New Haven to Boston, and the acquisition of the (problematic to say the least) Acela trainsets; the opening of what is in some ways Amtrak’s standard-bearing corridor service, the Boston-Portland Downeaster; the ongoing renewal of the NYC-Albany Empire Corridor, including the leasing of the line from Poughkeepsie to Hoffmans from CSX; reconstruction of the Philadelphia-Harrisburg PRR Main Line; and the ongoing renovation of several other lines, in particular the tracks used by the Vermonter in its terminal state (and, soon, Massachusetts). Certainly, this is halting progress; but it’s something, right?
Here’s where it could be better. The problem with the relatively compact geography of the Northeast is that political boundaries cripple the ability to think regionally. Many of the projects listed above–and many of those that are in some stage of the planning/dreaming process– need to involve crossing state lines to achieve their maximum potential and economic impact. In many cases, the destination for a passenger service is just over a state border–making it no one’s political constituency, since no state wants to pay an equal share for a project that is located 80% in the territory of another state, while the politicians in the first state doesn’t want to pay for a project that will bring benefit to an area that doesn’t vote for them. In no particular order, here are some of the projects I’m thinking of:
–New Haven/Hartford/Springfield (NHHS) “commuter” (it’s really a hybrid commuter-intercity service) rail. This one’s almost done–signal work is underway, tracklaying should begin this year or next, and the whole shebang should open in 2016. So why the issue? Clashes over funding have already sidelined plans for a second track that would cover the entire distance between Hartford and Springfield, with arguments playing along the exact lines I described above–Springfield is just five miles or so above the CT border, so CT doesn’t want to pay much to serve it, and MA is much more interested in spending money to restore service from Worcester to Springfield, which…eh. (more on that later)
–Springfield–Northampton–Greenfield–Brattleboro. I covered the southern portion of this route here, but the bigger political conflict is that Brattleboro would really like to see service along this route, while MA has zero incentive to pay for an expensive extension that would lengthen the line considerably and serves a city that’s not real big to begin with.
–Concord–Manchester-Nashua–Boston. New Hampshire is famously anti-rail and won’t ante up anything for what should be a slam-dunk service; MA is tired of I-93 being clogged by NH residents driving in from what are now exurbs of Boston, taking their paychecks back to NH, and leaving MA with the road repair bills.
–Providence–Woonsocket–Worcester. My understanding is that RIDOT is planning on moving ahead with the Providence-Woonsocket stage of this as part of an in-state commuter system, but it would make a lot of sense to continue of the Blackstone River valley to Worcester, especially since there’s no parallel freeway. Of course, that involves crossing a state boundary.
–Boston–Worcester–Springfield–Albany. Central and western MA residents have been begging the state for better rail service for years; Pittsfield’s pleas come across as almost desperate at times. Of course, that state’s rail arm is chartered as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, its service area not reaching the underserved areas of the state. And it makes no sense to go from Boston to Pittsfield without going on to Albany (of course Pittsfield’s demand is mainly from NYC, not Boston, so transfers from the Empire Corridor are more realistic). Of course, I have a personal stake in this line; I live in Albany and many of my friends (virtually all who aren’t in NYC) are in Boston.
–NYC–Albany–anywhere in Vermont. Of course, this route already has one train a day, Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express to Rutland; the issue is that Vermont LOVES passenger rail but doesn’t have the funds for pretty much any capital investments (and what few tax dollars the sparsely populated state does have are earmarked for its landmark single-payer healthcare campaign). Rutland is an OK terminus, but Burlington is the biggest city and metropolitan area in Vermont and makes a lot more sense as a terminus (Ok, the Vermonter serves Essex Junction from the other side of the state, but that takes forever). A restoration of the line between Rutland and Burlington would be more than feasible and the line is suitable for fairly high speeds; but there’s no way Vermont can come up with the money alone. Finally, in my opinion, NYC-Montreal high-speed rail, should that come down the pipes at some point, makes a lot more sense via Burlington than via the western shore of Lake Champlain or I-87.
–NYC–Delaware Water Gap–Scranton–Binghamton (I’d extend it to Cortland–a college town, and a connection to Ithaca–and Syracuse, but that’s just me). This one involves not two but three states. NJ Transit is starting the restoration of the first leg of the Lackawanna Cut-Off, and Chuck Schumer has been a major advocate for this service, but the political and investment issues (to say nothing of the route’s technical merits, though I think it would do well as far as Scranton at least) seem insurmountable. New Jersey has little incentive to participate because the trains would probably express through it.
–NYC–Bethlehem–Allentown. Same issues as the last route, but it’s a lot shorter, so it should be a much more successful service. I could see extending it to Reading and Harrisburg.
–Philly–Wilmington (OK, I’m cheating a little–this is more about existing service, and it’s essentially commuter/regional, not intercity). Wilmington and Philly-area transit advocates are campaigning for higher service frequencies to Wilmington, which should be a no-brainer. That advocates are asking the Delaware Department of Transportation to fund more trains run by the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority should tell us something, however.
The projects I’ve listed are services that could be crucial to tying regions together (by something other than freeways, that is), but fall through the cracks because of jurisdictional lack of incentive and funding battles. Some of them are pure intercity services; others are being operated or built today as commuter rail and have the potential to be European-style regional rail services in the future. Many of them, really, are–or should be–hybrids, the kind of thing progressive (by US standards) experimentation that conservative state DOTs can be reluctant to invest in but a regionwide authority might have the horsepower to get done.
What would a regional rail authority look like? I imagine it having some dedicated stream of funding derived from the tax revenues of all of the participating states. Presumably, governance would be by gubernatorial and DOT appointees from all of the participating states, plus mayoral appointees from all of the region’s major cities. I see a few open questions: 1) Would said authority take over the NEC from Amtrak? I’m fairly agnostic on this one, but given the dysfunction in Congress I’d lean towards thinking it probably should. 2) What relationship would the authority have with the commuter railroads that currently run on the NEC and several other intercity lines? Delays caused by commuter trains and commuter-favoring dispatching on tracks controlled by the commuter railroads are one of the major factors slowing down Amtrak trains today along the NEC in Massachusetts and Connecticut, along the Hudson Line, and elsewhere. Perhaps if the states felt like they had more control over the intercity operations, as opposed to dealing with nationally-chartered Amtrak, they’d be more interested in forcing cooperation. Maybe. 3) You’d have to figure out the place of intercity services that run entirely within in one state–think the Empire Corridor or Philly-Harrisburg–Pittsburgh– in the pecking order of projects. The idea that linking Buffalo and Utica and Rochester to NYC is beneficial to the regional economy as a whole is a hard sell to state governments.
And, of course, the case against doing this at all is that the history of interstate compacts in the Northeast ain’t exactly rosy. The Port Authority (of NY & NJ) is, there’s a total consensus, a cesspool of corruption and patronage; the Delaware River Port Authority is almost as as bad. Meanwhile, within state government, New York can’t even get the constituent railroads of the MTA to cooperate with each other, much less Amtrak, on major infrastructure projects and operational improvements. So maybe the key improvement is political will and dedication to change, regardless of having an overarching regional structure. Or maybe not. Opinions invited.