Friday, January 3, 2020

High speed rail: The fast train to nowhere

Last week, Governor Cuomo took to Twitter to announce yet another proposal for his 2020 State of the State Address. This time, he said, “I propose we convene outside experts to reexamine strategies to bring high-speed rail to NY. We've been told that bringing this technology to our state is too expensive, too difficult and would take too long—that's not an acceptable attitude.”

I may not be one of those experts and maybe I’m chock full of unacceptable attitude, but high speed rail will not be the cure for what ails our economy. Not even close. As a matter of fact, it might turn into one of the symptoms: If the system became a reality, say 10 years after its launch, when its mostly-empty cars pass by your home, the train will be but a recurring reminder of how stale the upstate economy is.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of railroads and a supporter of their future development. But, I know that when keeping our economy on track two things are first and foremost for rail development: One, moving freight great distances efficiently and affordably and, two, transporting people short distances for the purposes of commuting to their employment or nearby destinations in culture, tourism and education (much like the NFTA’s MetroRail does).

High speed rail fails to address either of those.

There are 140,000 miles of track in the US, over which freight with annual values of $175 billion are moved. This accounts for approximately 15 of all freight tonnage transported across the States. Rail is expected to grow in importance over the coming decades because of road congestion brought on by our nation’s rapidly-growing population (it will have grown by 15% by 2040) and considerable – and growing – shortage of tractor trailer drivers (which is why manufacturers are all-in with developing self-driving transport trucks). The expectations for rail freight are expected to increase by a whopping 37% by 2040.

With such an explosion, logjams and delays will be the norm. In some places, like Chicago, they already are. So, by making freight an afterthought, our government fails to focus on what matters most to the greater good. To stimulate the economy, and thusly employ people, moving goods not people must take precedence. That said, Cuomo’s interest in high-speed rail has me shaking my head, especially since our state eschews pipelines which in turn creates greater need for rail delivery.

Plus, we need reasons to move people and those reasons aren’t there.

There is no way that everything will work out just right so that tens of thousands of workers will commute from Buffalo to Rochester or Albany daily and have easy access to their jobs, if even those jobs exist.  

Do high speed rail fans really think that employers will be located near the train station or is accessible by other forms of public transportation? That thinking may have worked back in the 1800’s or early 1900’s when development was centralized in the heart of the big cities. But, now it won’t work because the jobs are more widespread. For most of the Upstate region the best and most numerous employment opportunities for the average person are no longer to be had in the hearts of metropolises. The city limits and the suburbs are where it’s at. Centralization is a thing of the past in Upstate.

And, so is explosive economic development.

You have to give entrepreneurs a reason to invest in New York. High speed rail won’t be it.

We’ve heard before from previous state officials that high-speed train will incite economic growth by facilitating business travel. We can see the fallacy of that claim already in this region. The Buffalo Niagara airport has become home to a bevy of affordable airlines that all service popular destinations. The world is accessible to Western New York and vice versa. So, if cheap and easy transportation is the magic elixir for a sick economy, why hasn’t the air situation, which meets those standards, done anything to jumpstart the local economy?

That said, it’s a no-brainer that what would be tens of billions of dollars is better spent on other forms of infrastructure (we want high-speed rail but we can’t even deliver high-speed internet) or mitigating New York’s considerable budget deficit or, better yet, not being spent at all, limiting tax burdens and improving the ability of the state and municipalities to compete for jobs and people.

But, Cuomo and his peers won’t see it that way because they prefer to be salesmen instead of statesmen. They don’t think in the long term or in reality. That’s because high-expense, low-reward ideas that sound sexy - like high-speed rail - win elections and the confidence of those who don’t see the big picture for what it is…an economy that has been derailed and can’t be saved by a fancy people mover.

If anything, high speed rail will only help New Yorkers leave the state more quickly.

From the 30 December 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

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