Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Midnight Train to Nowhere

Hey there boy! Is this the Pennsylvanian station?

No, sadly:

The White House today released the list of high-speed rail projects that will share $8 billion in stimulus funds, and, as expected, Western Pennsylvania was largely shut out.

Other than funding for a study of high-speed trains between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, most of the funds for the Northeast involved improving existing services between major cities. A total of $27 million will be dedicated to improving the Philadelphia-to-Harrisburg rail line, with an expected $750,000 of that for a study on extending that service to Pittsburgh eventually.
Pity that.

Now, this actually makes sense in the grand scheme of things: the "Keystone" plan is to link Pittsburgh with Harrisburg and Pittsburgh with Washington, which, if you've ever taken the Turnpike eastwards, you'll know are very difficult corridors from a civil engineering standpoint. Reinforcing the Harrisburg/Philadelphia corridor does make sense if the administration needs a proof of concept project, so I won't begrudge them for it.

Now, stepping back for a moment: it's only a one hour, forty-five minute drive from the Harrisburg Amtrak station to the Philadelphia Amtrak station. Assuming that most of that is highway (and uncluttered with traffic) and you'd be doing the speed limit, if the "High-Speed" trains are doing 100 mph, you'd see a one way trip taking about 45 minutes or so. (I have in on authority that it currently takes about an hour at the less than "high speed" speeds.) I'm not sure what the threshold Philadelphians have for their maximum commute times, but that's not outside the realm of possibility, I suppose, so Harrisburg could be reasonably considered a commuter suburb for Philadelphia. The MARC system, by contrast, extends from Washington D.C. to Martinsburg, WV, which is an hour and thirty-six minutes drive time; there's a station out there, so obviously Martinsburg, WV is also being used as a commuter suburb. If the same kinds of metrics were used in Pittsburgh (admittedly a smaller market), we'd be seeing long commuter trains from Cleveland, Erie, Greensburg, Johnstown, etc.

What's missing, however, is a good mid-to-local rail service: service to the Airport, to Etna, to Monroeville and service to Shadyside, Hazelwood, Manchester, Sheraden, and Banksville. These bit and pieces are actually far more important to the economic health of the region than the long commute line. You see, while the Port Authority has invested heavily in bus service, there is something different about local rail service; bus routes can change tomorrow; rail is permanent. The development of local rail corridors for medium range trips and light rail for intercity trips provides a focus for future development plans. A line from the airport to downtown to oakland will establish a permanent transit corridor and pretty much force developers to concentrate development close to stations, if they want to benefit from them.

In essence, the transportation planning bodies are establishing future, long term investment areas. Now I wonder if the folks at PAT consider this when they are making their investment choices or if they are getting much input from local economic development agencies. It would seem that there's no reason to do any of that, as no one is making them do it and it is not within their core competency.

But one day, hopefully everyone will start working together and I'll be able to jump on the T at 10 AM, make it to the noon meeting in DC, and be back in time for tea in Oakland.

A girl can dream, can't she?

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