Report: Start high-speed rail plans in metro areas

Urban planning group recommends starting with "megaregions" where it says high-speed passenger rail will get most use, pay for itself.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
3 min read

A study released Tuesday by urban planning initiative America 2050 recommends the U.S. Department of Transportation refocus its high-speed rail hopes on "megaregions" in order to be effective.

The term "megaregions" refers to the greater metropolitan areas concentrated throughout the U.S., which happen to consist of roughly 70 percent of the U.S. population and jobs, according to America 2050.

The 56-page study "High-Speed Rail in America" (PDF) claims to generally support the push that has been championed by politicians from both the Republican and Democratic party in certain regions of the country to introduce high-speed rail in the U.S. But it argues that funding and placement decisions should be more data-driven, and based on demand.

"The top performing corridors in each region determined to have the greatest potential demand for high-speed rail ridership include corridors, such as: New York-Washington, D.C.; Chicago-Milwaukee; Los Angeles-San Diego; Tampa (via Orlando) to Miami; Dallas-Houston; Atlanta-Birmingham; Portland-Seattle; and Denver-Pueblo," according to America 2050.

In making its case, the report offers a plethora of interesting U.S. maps illustrating regional air traffic, existing passenger rail use, and population rings surrounding key train stations.

Regions the America 2050 report says scores high and would benefit from high-speed rail based on several criteria. America 2050
High-speed railroads currently under construction or development, and proposed lines from the current Department of Transportation initiative. Federal Railroad Administration

The report argues that high-speed trains can provide better service than current regional air service because, in addition to using less fuel and costing less to run, trains can quickly transfer large numbers of passengers at multiple stops it makes along a route. Planes, in contrast, have more limited capacity, and must deal with the time-consuming task of take-off and landing for each stop made to transfer passengers.

The report also suggests the U.S. government should use the latest technology to collect more precise data on car traffic patterns.

The last study on interstate traffic patterns was conducted in 1995 and is "outdated and of limited use," according to the report.

"A new American Travel Survey should be initiated, making use of mobile and GPS technologies, while protecting privacy data," said the report.

The Northeast region, one of the places recommended by America 2050 for high-speed rail due in part to its exorbitant amount of regional air traffic between nearby cities. America 2050

Politicians from New York and Chicago have been lobbying the federal government for additional high-speed rail funds, while those from Ohio and Wisconsin have declined to participate in high-speed rail projects slated for their states. The report argues that this sort of local interest and political will should be taken into account if high-speed rail is to be financially viable long-term.

"Especially as we emerge from a recession, investing in projects that can realize their promised benefits and gain a measure of financial self-sufficiency is paramount," the report says. "While the potential to gain ridership is certainly not the only factor in a project's success (the ability to secure funding, maintain local support, and overcome design and engineering challenges is equally critical), ridership demand is important enough to be used as a preliminary screen of a proposed project's utility."

America 2050 is an urban planning initiative chaired by the Regional Planning Association, and sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Doris Duke Charitable Trust, and the Ford Foundation, among others.

The Regional Planning Association, it should be noted, is a New York-, New Jersey- and Connecticut-based organization. So while the organization has been researching and promoting responsible urban planning since 1929, it also happens to be rooted in one of the megaregions it recommends for high-speed rail.