Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Feb. 2, 2021. Read more of CT Mirror’s “Best of 2021” stories here.
In 2016, federal officials unveiled a plan for high-speed rail along the Northeast Corridor that included a 50-mile passage from Old Saybrook to the village of Kenyon, R.I.
The route went through Old Lyme and other historic small towns while bypassing New London. The plan, called NEC Future, met with heavy — almost unanimous — opposition. Hundreds turned out at meetings to oppose the plan. Sen. Richard Blumenthal seemed ready to lash himself to the tracks, calling the idea “half-baked and hare-brained” and “unworthy of any sort of taxpayer dollars.”
Sensing a lack of support, the Federal Railroad Administration pulled the plan back for further study of the entire New Haven to Providence segment. That study has not yet begun, according to an FRA spokesman. Does that mean there’ll be no high-speed rail in New England in the post-COVID world?
For the last three years, another high-speed rail concept has been quietly germinating, one that would go inland through Connecticut instead of along the shoreline.
Called North Atlantic Rail, the plan originated at University of Pennsylvania planning studios directed by highly regarded planner Robert Yaro, former president of the Regional Plan Association and advised by, among others, Christopher “Kip” Bergstrom, former deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, and Emil Frankel, former commissioner of the state Department of Transportation.
The centerpiece is a high-speed trunk line from New York City to Boston. But instead of following the existing shoreline right-of-way like the last doomed plan, the proposed new route would track to Long Island, cross Long Island Sound via a 16-mile tunnel to the New Haven area, then go north to Hartford. From there it would travel east on a new and yet to be determined right of way, make a UConn stop in Tolland, and then move on to Providence and Boston.
Yaro said in an interview the high speed trains could travel between Manhattan and Boston in 100 minutes, shaving two hours or more off current schedules. In addition, the plan would incorporate each state’s top rail priorities — Connecticut’s are the New Haven to New York and Hartford to Springfield lines — with the goal of connecting the regional cities in New England and southern New York State with each other and with Boston and New York City.
The new rail network will provide “transformational mobility, economic development and climate resilience benefits for the entire seven-state region,” said Bergstrom.
He believes that connecting the region’s population centers by high-speed rail would create a “new economic geography.” It would mean more employment and housing options, especially for city residents. It would reduce pollution and carbon production (the trains would be electrified, powered by renewable energy) and highway congestion, he said.
Yaro and Bergstrom, friends since they were in graduate school at Harvard in the 1970s, have both worked in Stamford — Bergstrom as development director and Yaro as a consulting planner. Both saw the downtown boom, in no small part because of a one-hour rail connection to New York City. The North Atlantic Rail plan would put Hartford an hour from New York — and Boston.
They estimate the project would cost $105 billion over 20 years.
It is highly unusual for a such a complex rail plan to come from the private sector, which raises the question: Can Yaro, Bergstrom and other civic and business leaders who’ve joined with them — Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin just became co-chairman of the initiative — convince Congress and the states to make this happen?
Though more than two dozen countries have high speed rail systems — virtually all of Europe, China, Japan, Korea and even developing countries such as Morocco and Uzbekistan — the movement for high-speed rail in this country has not progressed at anything resembling high speed. First proposed in the early 1960s, at about the time Japan was introducing its Shinkansen “bullet train,” U.S. high-speed rail plans have been proposed, planned and studied — but not actually built.
At present, the country has one high speed rail line under construction, in California, and it has endured delays. Others are on the drawing board in Las Vegas, Texas and the Pacific Northwest. There are several “higher-speed” projects in planning or service, including the Northeast Corridor’s Acela Express. Higher speed usually refers to trains with top speeds of 80 to 120 mph. The Acela can hit 150 mph but averages about half that speed due to various design and right-of-way constraints.
Yaro got interested in high-speed rail in 2004, when he led a Penn studio — a graduate seminar in which students try to solve real-world planning and design challenges — looking at long-term development trends and infrastructure needs. He and his students identified the emergence of 11, now 13, “megaregions,” clusters of large and small cities such as in the Northeast, areas 300 to 600 miles across with shared infrastructure, culture, histories and economies; economies that, in turn, power the national economy.
These areas must move people and goods to prosper. Yaro concluded they were too small to be efficiently served by air but too large to be traversed by cars without causing major congestion, delays and pollution. The best option, it seemed to him, was high-performance rail.
At a workshop that year in London, European officials said they were planning or had already built high-speed rail to serve their megaregions; Asian countries had done so as well. The Penn students and their advisors proceeded to map out a high-speed rail plan for the U.S. megaregions, including the Northeast.
Yaro traveled to other countries over the next few years to look at their high-speed rail systems. He and Bergstrom were among those who urged Congress to include money for high-speed rail in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, the stimulus bill which followed the 2008 Great Recession. Congress put $8 billion in seed money for high-speed rail in the bill, later adding another $2 billion. It paid for, among other things, the NEC Future study. But several ARRA high-speed projects became mired in partisan politics. Republican governors of Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida returned billions of dollars in grants rather than build the high-speed lines.
Also in 2009, the Federal Railroad Administration released its High Speed Rail Strategic Plan. The plan designated a number of potential high-speed corridors, many of which had been identified by Yaro’s 2004 studio group.
Yaro organized another studio to study the Northeast Corridor, and in 2010 the students produced a high-speed rail plan for the 457-mile, Boston-to-Washington run that included the Long Island Sound tunnel and inland route through Hartford. The students were able to present the plan to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who liked it and arranged a White House presentation to a noted train buff, Vice-President Joe Biden. Yaro said Biden urged Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration to adopt the plan.
That didn’t happen. At least, not yet.
Meanwhile, Yaro was watching a program developing in England that became known as the Northern Powerhouse initiative, a $160 billion plan to revitalize the economies of several older industrial cities across the North of England. The core of the plan is two high-speed rail lines: one connecting London to the North and another connecting cities, such as Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, to each other, augmented by job training, housing and other programs.
Yaro took students to Manchester in 2016 to see if the program could be adapted to the Northeast. He concluded that it could.
The planners doing the NEC Future plan considered three routes from Boston to New York: the tunnel, the shoreline and a rough diagonal via Waterbury to Hartford and Providence.
Yaro said the diagonal route simply doesn’t have the population to support the service. The existing shoreline tracks, laid out in the 19th century, are too bendy and congested for high-speed rail and also are vulnerable to climate change. Running a new shoreline route through historic towns is a nonstarter.
The tunnel, on the other hand, would connect the seven million people on Long Island to New England. With modern equipment, a 16-mile rail tunnel “is not a big deal,” he said, noting that dozens of longer rail tunnels have been built around the world in recent years.
Yaro said he understands that some of the consulting engineers on the NEC Future project wanted to use the Long Island-inland route, but the FRA thought the shoreline would be an easier political sell. If so, that may have been a miscalculation.
In the Northeast, there just isn’t the room to build more highways. Our destiny has got to be moving people more efficiently. ”
So Yaro and Bergstrom latched their concept, inspired by the Northern Powerhouse. Along with a high-speed rail network comparable to that in the UK, the plan calls for a new federal-state partnership, North Atlantic Rail Inc., to oversee planning and construction of the rail network and a public-private arrangement, the North Atlantic Partnership, to coordinate economic development activities.
In Congressional testimony in 2016, rail advocate Thomas Hart Jr., president of the Washington-based nonprofit Rail Forward, criticized the attempted rollout of high-speed rail in the U.S. For openers, he said, it was a mistake to put the FRA in charge, because it was primarily a safety agency that had neither the staff, experience or expertise to build a new rail system. To that point, he said, instead of learning from other countries that introduced high-speed rail, the FRA “insisted on reinventing the wheel” and “designed a burdensome and lengthy regulatory process.”
To avoid the latter issue, Yaro and Bergstrom will ask for a streamlined and efficient process, akin to what New York used to build the Tappan Zee Bridge a few years ago, Yaro said.
But at this point, process is not their biggest challenge.
The hard part
For the past three years Bergstrom and Yaro have been quietly meeting with business, civic and academic leaders to introduce and promote the regional high-speed rail concept. Most have welcomed it, they said, many enthusiastically.
One is Mayor Bronin. In a recent interview, Bronin said the Northeast has two of the country’s strongest metro economies, in New York and Boston, but also dozens of mid-sized cities that have fallen behind (including his), in part because they weren’t connected to the big financial engines. Connecting them by rail “would unlock economic opportunity for millions of people.”
Bronin’s co-chair is Douglas McGarrah, a prominent Boston lawyer who also chairs ABC — A Better City, a business organization that promotes transportation, infrastructure and economic development in Greater Boston.
A 1977 graduate of Hartford’s Trinity College, McGarrah has an extensive background in transportation. He served as transportation and development advisor to Sen. Paul Tsongas, was chief of staff of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, and chief counsel to the Central Artery/Tunnel project (that would be the controversial but ultimately successful “Big Dig”).
McGarrah has joined the North Atlantic Rail steering committee because, like Bronin, he thinks the high-speed rail network is the game-changing infrastructure project the region desperately needs to expand its job shed, revive the region’s “hollowed-out” mid-sized cities, “dramatically improve housing” and meet each state’s goals of reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
“We’ve gone for a long time starving infrastructure, transportation in particular,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “We need big ideas. We need to think like it’s 1932. It’s time to invest in fundamental pieces of infrastructure that work for everybody.”
“In the Northeast, there just isn’t the room to build more highways,” McGarrah said. “Our destiny has got to be moving people more efficiently.”
“In Europe,” he added, “CEOs take the train.”
McGarrah said the idea has received a strong reception from business and civic leaders, environmentalists and mayors. High-speed rail advocates also like it.
“We totally support that project. In such a dense region with an already high rail ridership, it makes all the sense in the world, “ said Andy Kunz, president of the US High Speed Rail Association, a Washington-based nonprofit.
Where North Atlantic Rail hasn’t generated much enthusiasm, McGarrah acknowledges, is with the states. For example, when asked about the North Atlantic Rail proposal, a Connecticut Department of Transportation spokesman issued a guarded statement recognizing the importance of rail service and saying that the DOT “looks forward to working with the administration and our congressional delegation on improving and addressing the backlog of needs for our state-owned rail system.”
We’ve had decade after decade of piecemeal projects that were nowhere near transformative. This can be transformative, if we have the will to do it.”
The states’ noncommittal attitude is perhaps understandable; officials are, in McGarrah’s phrase, “resource constrained” and struggling to keep existing service going.
But that’s not fatal to the proposal, at least at this stage, because the political strategy doesn’t go through Hartford, Providence or Boston, but Washington, where rail’s old friend “Amtrak Joe” Biden now has his hand on the throttle.
The new president has proposed a “second great railroad revolution” as part of a $2 trillion infrastructure and climate initiative. Biden, who famously commuted from Delaware to Washington on Amtrak during his 36 years in the Senate, wants the cleanest, safest, fastest system in the world.
Bergstrom said North Atlantic Rail is on that very page. He said the goal is to secure $105 billion over 20 years from Biden’s national infrastructure initiative to build the new seven-state system. He said this is about 5% of the $2 trillion, but it will serve a megaregion with 11 percent of the U.S. population and 14 percent of its economy.
He said proposals have already been made by Amtrak and the FRA for billions of dollars of (needed) improvements in the Northeast Corridor south of New York City, such as the $30 billion Gateway Tunnel under the Hudson River. Unless the northern end of the corridor can make an equally compelling case, he said, “our tax dollars will go elsewhere.”
This means winning support from Congress and the administration. And while that is never assured, the stars may be aligned. The plan has been presented to the Biden transition team and was favorably received, Bergstrom said. Two key House committees, Ways & Means and Appropriations, are headed by Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) respectively, whose districts would be served by North Atlantic Rail.
Rep. John Larson is an enthusiastic supporter of the plan: “The North Atlantic Rail proposal is great idea that could move New England’s transportation system into a new era,” he said, adding that he will help move it forward.
There are still questions to be answered. Even if Congress appropriates the construction funds, what about operating subsidies? Congress has frequently been reluctant to fund Amtrak, never mind a new high-speed system.
Yaro said many countries cover their high-speed operating costs by promoting joint development projects in their station areas and by running “highly profitable first- and business-class cars on most trains.”
Also, how would this project affect service on the state’s existing passenger rail corridors, notably the New Haven Line, where the state and Amtrak are slowly working down a backlog of essential projects such as replacing ancient bridges?
Yaro said his proposal includes a $5 billion investment in the New Haven Line, which will “enable faster, more reliable and frequent Metro-North commuter service.” Similar investments in the Hartford Line between New Haven and Springfield, which are included in North Atlantic Rail’s budget, will also improve service on this newly revamped rail corridor.
Bronin said one of the strengths of the North Atlantic Rail planning is that it includes projects that can be started in a year or two, and a long-term, 20-year plan for world-class high-speed rail.
“We’ve had decade after decade of piecemeal projects that were nowhere near transformative,” Bronin said. “This can be transformative, if we have the will to do it.”
McGarrah said he thinks that if Congress appropriates the construction funds, the other details can be worked out. “This is a moment of opportunity. I’m highly optimistic.”
This reporting was made possible, in part, through generous support from Robert W. Fiondella and the Fiondella Family Trust.