FRA presents expensive, alternative futures for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor

Long train rides have an almost magical ability to free the rider’s thoughts from quotidian concerns, to let one’s mind wander unworried with the primary task at hand, arrival at some predetermined destination, and flirt with lofty ideals.

Such flights of fancy—so rarely enjoyed on actual flights—are why Amtrak created its Residency program, which sends writers on long train trips, free of charge (that, and it’s effective marketing). The Economist recently took a trip through the snowy forests of the Russian psyche via the Moscow-Archangel line, writing how trains “rumble through Russian literature and poetry with remarkable frequency.”

At SEPTA’s headquarters on Monday night, officials from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) listened to public feedback on their draft Tier 1 Environmental Impact Study (EIS), a planning document providing three alternative visions for the future of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC).

From the crowd’s statements last night, it sounds like the FRA may have spent a little too much time on trains, dreaming big dreams for the Northeast Corridor’s future.

“[The EIS alternatives are] great in the land of infinite money, and if you let me know how to get there, I’ll emigrate at the first opportunity” said Michael Noda, who writes the transit blog,, “but, in the meantime, we live here.”

“Our resources are finite.”

Capital Cost estimates from draft Tier 1 EIS
(Federal Railroad Administration)

This draft Tier 1 EIS is the latest study in a series called NEC Future. FRA program manager for NEC Future Rebecca Reyes-Alicea told PlanPhilly that, based on feedback from the public and other key stakeholders, a preferred alternative based on the three presented would be announced later this year.

Costs for the three alternatives presented in the EIS range from $64 billion to $308 billion, spent between now and 2040. Only the most expensive alternative, dubbed “Transform” and costing somewhere between $267-$308 billion, would provide for full high speed rail (HSR) along the entirety of the Northeast Corridor’s 457 miles, which would reduce travel times between Boston and Washington DC by nearly three hours.

Alternative 2, or “Grow”, would cut that same trip by about an hour; it would cost around $130 billion.

For a scant $65 billion, Alternative 1 would fix—or “Maintain”—enough of the Corridor’s chokepoints and other glaring problems, like century-old bridges. Just by bringing the system into a state of good repair would reduce the DC-Boston trip by an estimated 35 minutes.

An obligatory “no action alternative” is also included in the EIS, warning about the impending system failures if the Corridor’s infrastructure isn’t at the very least rehabilitated. Even that plan would cost a few billion.

Prominent transportation writer Alon Levy railed against the EIS estimates in a post titled, “When There’s Nothing Left To Burn, You Have To Set Money On Fire” writing that the billions  “that NEC Future wants to burn on HSR could build nearly a complete national HSR network, serving most metro areas above 1 million people.”

Levy focused on what he considered overly expensive and unnecessary elements in the alternatives.

Locally, Levy pointed to a tunnel underneath sections of Philadelphia in Alternatives 2 and 3. Both visions call for a new intercity rail station Philadelphia International Airport, and Alternative 3 puts a new station at Market East, meaning high speed trains would bypass 30th Street Station, which is itself the focus of extremely ambitious and expensive plans right now.

For comparison, a new subway tunnel being built in Manhattan has cost about $2.7 billion per mile. Extending the Broad Street Line about a mile to the Navy Yard is estimated around $500 million.

The NEC Future project is about creating a “a collective, regional vision” for the Northeast Corridor, said Reyes-Alicea, not a concrete set of plans. “It’s important to remember that NEC Future is a program of projects, that will be incrementally implemented to achieve whatever vision is selected.”

While $300 billion sounds extreme, the costs will really be spread out across the eight states and District of Columbia over a period exceeding twenty years. That works out to about $12-15 billion a year in construction costs for Alternative 3 and around $6-7 billion a year for Alternative 2.

Currently, Amtrak’s annual federal subsidy is $1.375 billion, an amount free-market conservatives hope to reduce to zero. While Amtrak’s subsidies are significantly smaller than federal highway subsidies, and the economic health of the Northeast arguably relies heavily on the Northeast Corridor, any plan that relies on a five-to-ten-fold increase in federal rail infrastructure spending seems untethered to the realities of government transportation spending.

The public can submit feedback on the draft EIS until January 30th at The FRA will release a final development plan in spring 2017.

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