Amtrak’s Nightmare Scenario

On the one hand, it’s difficult to argue with American citizens who believe that their national rail system should provide fast and frequent service between major cities. Metropolises like New York and Boston, for instance, are national engines of economic growth; smaller cities like New Haven and Providence provide similar benefits at the regional and local levels. Such municipalities certainly do need, and deserve, timely commuter service.

But on the other hand, it’s also difficult to argue with individuals who believe that the natural environment shouldn’t be sacrificed on the altar of economic growth. Connecticut and Rhode Island, the small states that occupy the geography between New York and Boston, possess magnificent beachfront shorelines, deep bays, and mighty rivers. The lands and waters that are now preserved for fishing, farming, eco-tourism, and passive environmental uses may be irretrievably harmed by massive transportation construction projects.

When urban cities exist side-by-side with suburban and rural communities, Amtrak is faced with the nightmare scenario of serving both interests simultaneously. Last month, when the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) unveiled its vision for the northeastern United States rail corridor, it tried to meet this challenge.

Did it succeed? It attempted to please both constituencies by vowing to maintain its existing scenic (but structurally outdated) rail line along the shoreline of the Long Island Sound while building a massive new high-speed rail tunnel further inland. According to its vision, the existing line would continue to serve waterfront communities between New Haven and Providence, while the tunnel would facilitate dramatically faster travel times in a visually unobtrusive manner.

Perhaps predictably, constituencies attacked Amtrak from both directions. In Connecticut, for instance, urbanists at the Business Council of Fairfield County complained that the proposal did not visually enhance the Stamford train station, “which is an eyesore to the community.” Likewise, the city of Hartford failed to receive a direct rail line to its airport.

Environmentalists were similarly critical of the proposed pathway of the new inland tunnel, which would slice through many small towns. According to Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, “A rail line that … proceeds through historic and environmentally sensitive areas is a non-starter — dead on arrival.

If you are optimistically presuming that the release of the vision statement may settle this debate in the near future, Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed has corrected your impression. He “… noted that the FRA expects detailed engineering and environmental (studies) … on the various pieces of the new plan … (to) take many years if not decades …

Decades? In that case, northeasterners won’t experience the economic benefits of modern rail service between New York and Boston any time soon. Of course, with the possible threat of a massive construction project lingering over the farms and villages of rural Connecticut and Rhode Island, environmentalists won’t be able to attract any new projects either.

In other words, both constituencies will find themselves locked in a continuing state of perpetual gridlock. It’s simply another reason why many Americans feel so frustrated about the dysfunctionality of their government agencies.