Philadelphia businesses and planners tally economic benefits of high-speed rail

Amtrak unveiled its $117 billion high-speed rail plan for the Northeast Corridor in September.

Three months later, a panel began tallying up the potential economic benefit to the Philadelphia region at a discussion sponsored by the Central Philadelphia Development Corp. on Wednesday.

John Connors, managing partner at the Philadelphia office of Brickstone Realty, told an assemblage of Philadelphia planners and business notables that putting a high-speed rail terminal along Market East ― as the plan calls for ― will jump start economic development along the corridor.

He argued that large influxes of cash have spurred earlier development along Market East and pointed to the construction of The Gallery and the present Market East Station, largely with federal dollars, and the present Convention Center expansion as examples of that pattern.

High-speed rail could be “another massive capital event,” which is something that CPDC, the Center City District’s sister organization, has been looking for, Connors said.

He and other panelists also harped on the speed of the proposed line, with trains topping out at 220 miles per hour.

That could turn Philadelphia into a “super-bedroom community” for New York by essentially making a commute to the Big Apple take about the same amount of time as a trip to Paoli, Connors said.

Robert D. Yaro, president of the New York Regional Plan Association, said that, in turn, the line would enable Philadelphia businesses to attract employees living in Connecticut and entice New York-based companies to relocate back-office and operational divisions to Philadelphia.

Under the proposal, the section connecting New York and Philadelphia, which is expected to cost $20 billion, would be constructed first and would take 12 years to complete. Eight-car trains carrying up to 400 passengers each would initially stop at 30th Street Station, with a new high-speed rail station slated to open in Center City in the next phase of the proposal, which would extend service down to Washington, D.C.

In the end, service would also run north to Boston.

If all goes according to plan, construction could start in 2015. But funding high-speed rail will be a heavy political lift, the panelists acknowledged. “I will take up a collection,” joked Albrecht P. Engel, Amtrak’s vice president for high-speed rail. Money would probably have to come from a combination of state and federal grants and public-private partnerships, he said.

Because the line would bring with it an estimated $236 billion a year in economic benefit, Yaro called it “the enabler for the Northeast economy” and said that the business community would have to push through political opposition to get the project funded.

James H. Carll, chairman of the PenJerDel Council, a regional business advocacy group, pointed to the business community’s successful push to get the Blue Route built in the suburbs after 30 years of opposition from local communities and environmental groups. A “similar effort” is needed here, he said.

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