Expanding access to high-speed rails in the U.S. overlooks the need for local access to jobs and other services.
There is no doubt in my mind that the United States’ inner-city rail transportation system is in serious need of an overhaul. It’s embarrassing that so many nations have rail networks that surpass the U.S.’s when we tout ourselves as the strongest nation in the world and were once the innovators of rail.
Last month in Philadelphia when Vice President Joe Biden appeared to announce President Barack Obama was seeking $8 billion in next year’s budget as part of a six-year, $53 billion plan to expand high-speed rail in the U.S., I was excited. Obama said in his State of the Union address that he wants 80 percent of Americans to have access to high-speed rail by 2025.
“If we don’t seize this future, how will America ever have the opportunity to lead the world in the 21st century?” Biden said to TIME magazine.
I agree with Biden, and it would be nice to quickly travel from city to city – and have access to less popular destinations – but that would be more of a luxury than a necessity. What is necessary is for people to have access to jobs, businesses and services within their own cities, which is why that money should fund subway and light-rail projects first.
Most cities have bus networks, but I think anyone that has had to rely on buses for anything can tell you that they are not the answer. You have to deal with the elements at the bus station, wondering if the bus is even coming, then try cramming onto it and waiting for people to buy their fare. Then you are at the mercy of traffic.
You could get where you are going on time, or you could get there an hour late. Who knows? If you’re not convinced a subway is a better experience in comfort and speed, try taking the Broad Street Line from the Walnut-Locust stop to the Cecil B. Moore stop during rush hour, and then try taking the bus for the same distance.
While living in Tokyo in 2008 and 2010, I noticed the subways made everything work within the city. Despite how awesome bullet trains were and their obvious time-saving benefits, I never rode them because I was a poor student – they were an after-thought to living a good city life. I would never consider taking a bus across town for anything that was less than absolutely necessary, such as to get to a doctor’s appointment.
But in Tokyo, it was nothing to hop the on subway and go across town to window shop. With spotless stations and nearly everything within a 10-minute walk of at least one subway line, the trips were almost leisurely.
Owning a business in the city that is nowhere near a rail stop is not an easy task when most people outside of the city, and indeed many inside the city, rely on cars for transportation.
Street parking spots are hard to come by outside of businesses in the city. Maybe they are near a parking garage, but barring an amazing sale or specialty service, why would anyone who lives near the suburbs fight city traffic and pay to park in a garage when they could just go to a chain store in a county strip mall?
In Maryland, which is reported by the Census Bureau to be the wealthiest U.S. state, officials are attempting to expand the state’s inadequate rail service with an east-to-west combination light-rail/subway line in Baltimore, as well as a line southwest of the city that would make for easier access to Washington, D.C.’s system. There’s even talk of connecting SEPTA to Maryland’s MARC service, according to Delaware Online.
Though there’s been discussions in Maryland about expanding the rail system for years – and being from Maryland, I can see the revitalization is certainly needed – money is tight. Spending money on rail, which is by no means cheap, is a hard sell to recession-minded tax payers when much of the money must come from the state’s own pockets.
If the richest state in the country is having a hard time paying for rail, what hope do other states have on their own? A pledge of this stimulus money, which is supposed to improve the infrastructure for the future, would likely go a long way toward getting such projects started. That $53 billion could probably get a couple dozen new lines across the country started.
We need high-speed rail, but that’s not the first step to restarting the U.S.’s rail service. We need to walk before we run. Besides, let’s say you do take a high-speed trip somewhere. How are you going to get around when you get there?
Lee Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.