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High Speed Rail’s Missed Connections

Ever since its inclusion in the American Recovery and Reinvestment (stimulus) Act, the $8 billion in funding for high speed rail (HSR) has enchanted the American public. Stories abound detailing the potential for new corridors, what it may do to our metropolitan areas, and whether we need the investment at all.

Recently Edward Glaeser has been conducting a hypothetical cost-benefit analysis of these projects in the New York Times. But it’s worth looking at them as they stand now.

Potential applicants have been frenzied, submitting 278 applications totaling over $102 billion in an effort to get their hands on a piece of that $8 billion.

While these applications suggest ample demand for HSR corridors, national demand may still be under-represented. This has to do with the limited number of corridors approved for federal investment.

Take a look at this map produced by the Federal Railroad Administration showing which corridors are approved for federal HSR investment. They cover almost every corner of the country, excluding the Mountain West.

However, the map leaves out quite a few metropolitan connections. There is no connection between Southern California and Phoenix or Tucson. Buffalo and Detroit are connected to the east and west, respectively, but don’t maintain connections to the Toronto metropolis. Jacksonville (FL) is connected to the north, but doesn’t maintain a connection to Orlando or the rest of Florida. And why are Dallas and Houston unconnected?

One contributing factor to these missing connections is that there have been few revisions since 2000. Essentially, federal officials are only considering corridors based on ten-year old decisions. 

Simply put, this is an outdated approach. Environmental realities have changed significantly in the past decade. The rapidly globalizing economy generates modified interconnectivities between metropolitan areas. New demographic patterns affect population levels and general economic production. 

Now, to be sure, the federal government is using a fairly detailed selection process when sorting through those 278 applications. But how and when will the approved corridors undergo the same process? 

If President Obama’s stated goal is to produce a world-class system of HSR, then surveying all potential corridors is a necessary step to that end.

Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings