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Full throttle for high-speed rail?

High-speed rail likely hinges on federal funding, but does getting such funding automatically make it a good idea?

March 1, 2002


Full throttle for high-speed rail?

In this day and age Americans have become accustomed to choices in everything, and that includes travel. That changed September 11, as long security lines became standard for most airline flights, which can make airport waits as long as the flights themselves. But there might be an alternative for the easternmost portion of the district if a handful of state transportation departments, more than 200 lawmakers, the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) and Amtrak have their way.

Lawmakers and eight Midwestern states are seriously considering a new high-speed system that would link cities throughout the region and ideally the nation. The Midwest Regional Rail System (MWRRS) is proposing to put trains at speeds of 110 miles per hour on about 3,000 miles of track. With Chicago as a central hub, the system would branch in every direction, including along an existing Amtrak route that would go through Milwaukee, Madison and La Crosse, Wisconsin, cross the Mississippi into Minnesota and go through Winona and Red Wing on its way to the Twin Cities. A proposed bus feeder system would also establish depots in Rochester, Mankato, St. Cloud and Duluth, Minn., and across the state line in Eau Claire and Rhinelander, Wis.

Whether high-speed rail is the most economically sound and consumer friendly choice remains to be seen. A high-speed train route rolling through the Midwest sounds grand, but it may not be so spectacular if taxpayers end up paying for the service—especially if there is not proven demand for such a service.

Photo-High-Speed Train

All aboard

The biggest obstacle to the plan is funding—an estimated $4.1 billion over 10 years to connect Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska and Ohio. Most states have enthusiastically supported the proposal, with the assumption that they would have to pick up just 20 percent of the tab, with the remaining 80 percent to be federally funded" the same template for how the interstate highway system got built, supporters point out.

"Ultimately if the feds decide never to do this, it would be very difficult for any state to develop a program like this on their own. It's not entirely impossible. Florida has experimented with private partnerships with private monies, but it does make it more difficult," said Sam Kahn, principal planner for the Office of Passenger Rail Transit for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Aspirations for funding were squashed last year with the defeat of the High-Speed Rail Reinvestment Act, a $12 billion program for nationwide high-speed rail. The act currently has 67 Senate and 190 House sponsors, more than a dozen of whom are from district states. The bill will be presented to Congress again in 2002, and most likely beyond.

The proposed system would use 66 train sets to connect metro areas using mostly existing rail rights of way, typically Amtrak routes that are shared with freight trains. Infrastructure improvements to rights of way to support the higher-speed trains are estimated at $3.4 billion, with trains themselves costing about $650 million.

The project goal is to improve mobility and stimulate economic development, a strategy that has plenty of supporters and skeptics. Virgil Roberts, former Wisconsin Assembly member from Holmen, is both.

The Midwest Regional Rail System (MWRRS) is proposing to put trains at speeds of 110 miles per hour on about 3,000 miles of track. With Chicago as a central hub, the system would branch in every direction.

"I think we certainly need [a high-speed rail system], but I think they set their sights too high for what the cost will be. They could get to 110 mph, but in order to do that they're going to have to put a lot of roadbed in," said Roberts, who also worked for the Milwaukee Railroad as a train dispatcher for 37 years. "I bet the costs will double," he said.

According to the MWRRS's most recent executive report (February 2000), if the system is built and fully operational by 2010, it's forecast to attract almost 10 million passengers annually, or about four times more than if existing passenger train service continued without improvement.

Although average MWRRS fares are expected to be about 50 percent higher than current Amtrak fares, they could well be an attractive option compared with air travel between the same travel points.

For example, the trip from the Twin Cities to Madison, Wisconsin, is about 260 miles. High-speed rail fares are estimated to be $83 for business travelers and $53 for nonbusiness (one-way). At 110 mph and making about a half-dozen stops, the train would make the trip in about two and one-half hours. A comparable flight would save half the time, but cost two to five times that amount. A car trip, while considerably less expensive than high-speed rail, would take twice as long.

That middle ground between air and auto is where the travel void lies, say rail advocates, and thus the opportunity for high-speed rail. Even some critics concede that the only way the project makes economic sense is to use it for distances of around 200 miles. Less than 3 percent of airline travel is under 225 miles, says Wendell Cox, a national transportation consultant, making rail distances of about 200 miles competitive with automobiles but not airplanes.

But rail advocates have much greater plans for the final system. The FRA has designated 12 corridors throughout the country for high-speed rail. At this stage in planning, the corridors do not meet because the system is concentrated on shorter-distance travel, but the expectation is that corridors will ultimately be connected much like the interstate freeway system.

Engineering for engineers

Each state involved in the MWRRS is at varying stages of the planning game. Rail plans in Wisconsin got a boost when the Legislature allocated $2.5 million to build a new station at Milwaukee's Gen. Mitchell International Airport; an engineering and environmental assessment study is already under way for the new terminal. The state also purchased the Milwaukee Amtrak station for $1.4 million, and with the help of another $2.6 million in Federal Transit Administration money it is rehabilitating that terminal.

But even Wisconsin is a long way from its version of the bullet train. Assuming federal funding goes through—which itself is not a given—Wisconsin would still have to come up with a fair chunk of railroad change to complete the project. Estimates put total costs of the high-speed line in Wisconsin at about $625 million, which means the state's 20 percent share would be $125 million, a daunting proposition given that the state is currently facing a budget deficit of more than $1 billion.

Other states, like Minnesota, are waiting. The Twin Cities-to-Chicago corridor would account for one-third of the system's ridership, about 3.2 million passengers annually, so it is a key player in this corridor, according to Kahn. The state began working with the eight other states in 1996 and has completed planning studies up to this point, she said. Minnesota is asking for $10 million in state aid to pay for engineering studies for the 130-mile segment of the route located within state borders. The state would use existing passenger stations in Red Wing and Winona and is looking into redeveloping the St. Paul Union Depot.

Trains? Woo-woo

Despite the costs and other obstacles, it's not hard to find ardent supporters of the proposal, however. More than 150 business leaders from La Crosse signed a petition last November to encourage legislators to support the High-Speed Rail Reinvestment Act in Congress.

Jim Hill, executive director of the La Crosse Area Development Corp., feels that it will be a tremendous advantage to have a transit alternative for the business traveler. "It should be viewed as a huge infrastructural undertaking—thousands of operational jobs would be created," he said. The city of La Crosse has already spent almost $2 million to rehabilitate the city's formerly dilapidated train depot, in anticipation of the high-speed line. "We hope Congress will be able to dislodge these bills because of the huge advantage of stimulation it would have on the Midwest economy," Hill said.

Some critics feel if a high-speed rail system is so necessary, then states should be able to fund it on their own. But Richard Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Coalition, said it is necessary for the federal government to be involved, "because of the same reason they're involved with building highways, airports and waterways. ... If you expect the automobile user to pay his full share of the highway right of way, the right of way will never be built. It's the same for railroads."

Kevin Brubaker, project manager for high-speed rail at Chicago's Environmental Law and Policy Center, argued that the public cannot expect the states to make rational transportation decisions when the federal government is providing massive subsidies to every other mode. "There's a long history of the federal government playing a role in assisting with interstate transportation projects," Brubaker said.

Brubaker said September 11 showed the nation how overly reliant it was on air transportation. "When air service didn't work well, the nation came to a standstill and we are still seeing problems because of that," he said. "The best way to secure airline safety is to get people out of the air who don't belong there—the people taking shorter trips, like Minneapolis to Chicago. That frees up airport security for the long-distance flyer. That's also where the airlines make the most money," Brubaker said.


Opponents of a subsidized high-speed rail system agree that September 11 demonstrated the economy's fragility. But according to Cox, "We really shouldn't be doing frivolous things. We should be spending public money for the purpose of achieving public purposes and on infrastructure that people will use."

That would not include high-speed rail, according to Cox and other critics, who charge that high-speed rail benefits are based on optimistic and even misleading assumptions, rather than quantified demand. One example is the fact that MWRRS is projecting that a fully built system would be self-sufficient in terms of annual operations, which also happen to not include start-up construction and train-buying costs. Only time will tell, but even this modest feat is something the vast majority of existing passenger rail lines—Amtrak, intra-city light-rail, or other passenger rail lines—have been unable to do.

MWRRS also claims high-speed rail will help relieve highway traffic congestion. Cox, who is also a member of the Amtrak Reform Council, says project advocates need to recognize "that if we were seeking to reduce traffic congestion, we [should] be doing things for intracity transport, not intercity transport" because traffic between two geographically separated cities contributes very little to highway congestion in either city. An FRA study estimated that high-speed rail would divert 3 percent to 6 percent of auto trips destined for other cities along a high-speed rail corridor.

"We're talking about a market share [for passenger rail] that is vanishingly small," said Shef Lang, former senior research fellow at the University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies. "We're talking 1 percent of the intercity market in passenger miles. Rail is not going to compete for many short haul trips."

A look at the Milwaukee-to-Madison high-speed loop might offer some explanation. A study of this corridor found that round-trip fares would run $40 to $60, yet the one-way time for the 85-mile trip was estimated at one hour and seven minutes. That's about 15 minutes faster than the trip by car (assuming negligible highway congestion as well as quick transfers into and out of rail depots to the final destination) for about five times the cost. Early construction estimates for the loop are about $175 million and do not include the trains, train stations or control equipment.

The FRA study predicted that high-speed rail would divert a significantly higher percentage of intercity air traffic—in some corridors, as much as 20 percent. But given the limited number of destinations sprouting from any single high-speed rail hub (in the case of the Twin Cities, it would be just one-Chicago), the broader impact on total airport congestion would be negligible.

"Air travel in this county is so decentralized, that you can't take away one market from the airport and have it be a big deal," Cox said. "So this view that high-speed rail is going to be an alternative to flying is absolute romance. It's not reality."

Cox also felt that the facts often get misrepresented. Rail advocates "do not understand the difference between a subsidy and a user fee. If you do not buy gasoline, you do not pay for the roads. I do know there is general fund tax subsidy for local roads in communities. For the most part, all of the money that goes into the intercity highways comes from the gasoline tax or user fees," Cox said. "These people are playing with words. Virtually all of the spending on airports in this country, for 30 years, has been through user fees" that are included in the price of a plane ticket.

Lang said people have a romanticized view of rail, some of which is fueled by flawed analysis. Rail studies, including a 1996 FRA report, often bend methodological rules for ridership and other estimates, putting the best possible face on the prospects for high-speed rail projects around the country, Lang said. They have to, he said, because accessibility makes the automobile more competitive in almost every market regardless of how long or short the trip is.

Many supporters point to the so-called Northeast Corridor, which runs 20 high-speed trains between Boston and New York, as an example of what could be. In operation for over 20 years, it saw ridership grow after Sept. 11 and dwarfs all other passenger rail lines in terms of passengers and revenue. The Midwest system is modeled after it, but some are skeptical of the comparison, pointing out that the Northeast line runs continuously through corridors with population densities that are scores higher than Midwest corridors.

"The Washington-New York market has a little chunk of that [high-speed rail] market, and they can have it. And there are people who look at that and say, 'You know, if this were run by a private corporation instead of by this Mickey Mouse government-supported operation, mainly Amtrak, they might be able to hang in there as a private entity and do reasonably well,'" Lang said. "But this is 19th century technology—we should never forget that. It was great then, when the alternative was buggies on unpaved roads or stagecoaches or riverboats chugging along at 3 or 4 mph up and down the Mississippi. But this is no longer the case. The highway sets the standard. ... Behind every single one of these [rail] initiatives is a bunch of people who are convinced ... that the automobile is the curse of modern civilization."

The idea that the federal government could pay 80 percent of a rail project through their town or state is enough for some to do cartwheels, while others would rather lie across the tracks to stop it altogether. Unless federal funding comes through, neither group will get the chance to demonstrate its zeal for or against high-speed rail.

See map: Proposed Midwest Regional Rail System