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Friday, February 5, 2021

New high-speed rail plan gives Charlestown, CT and RI shorelines a wide berth

Northeast High-Speed Rail Project Races Forward

By GRACE KELLY/ecoRI News staff

The seven-state initiative, the six New England states and downstate New York, would be built in three phases. (North Atlantic Rail)

A group of transit professionals, activists, elected officials, and organizations want the North Atlantic region to ride the rails into the future.

Rail travel has no bigger fan than Joe Biden so
it's no surprise he likes this plan. Note that
unlike the 2017 flap, this plan leaves the CT-RI
shoreline, including Charlestown alone.
- Will Collette
The North Atlantic Rail (NAR) initiative proposes connecting small and mid-sized urban centers throughout New England with a high-speed trunk line. 

It also calls for bolstering and connecting regional rail networks, paving the way for a cleaner, more equitable regional transportation system. The trunk line would operate at 200 mph, and regional and branch lines between 80 and 120.

The NAR initiative also includes building a 16-mile rail tunnel under Long Island Sound, connecting New York City to Boston, with stops in Connecticut and Providence, in a 100-minute ride. In Rhode Island, components include frequent high-speed rails from Kingston, T.F. Green International Airport, and Providence to Boston.

The idea for a North Atlantic Rail network was born in 2004 as part of a University of Pennsylvania studio project headed by Robert Yaro, a planner and former president of the New York City-based Regional Plan Association.

“We looked at growth trends in the country and identified the emergence of what we call mega regions,” Yaro said. “And these places are all 300 to 600 miles across, so they’re too big to be easily traversed by automobile and too small to be easily, efficiently traversed by the airplane.”

Six years later, in 2010, another studio project was hosted after Amtrak came out with a proposal for a $50 billion project to reduce travel times between New York and Washington, D.C., by 15 minutes.

“We said, ‘That sounds like a lot of money for not a lot of benefit,’” Yaro recalled. “So we convened another studio … with some very talented professional engineering advisors … and we came up with a high-speed, world-class rail proposal for the Northeast.”

One person who attended the presentation was Joe Biden.

“Ten minutes into the presentation and Biden says ‘Goddamnit, I've been waiting for this for 30 years. Let's do it,’” Yaro said.

And now that Biden is president and pushing a $2 trillion sustainable infrastructure and clean energy plan, NAR is putting the pedal to the metal.

“We see this as a kind of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get this thing done,” Yaro said. “The key to making ticket prices affordable is to have the federal government cover the capital cost. Until the Georgia Senate races were decided, everybody just kind of rolled their eyes when we said that, but now it's something that’s a very serious likelihood. It’s more than a possibility; it’s gonna happen.”

The proposed high-speed rail system would reduce travel times significantly. (North Atlantic Rail)

NAR steering committee members have estimated that the project would cost a total of $105 billion to design and build the top priority projects and trunk line.

The benefits of a high-speed rail go beyond interconnectedness, and NAR proponents believe that it would also stimulate the economy by creating jobs, result in the creation of more affordable housing, and promote environmentally friendlier transportation through electric trains.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), rail travel has a “much lower carbon intensity” compared to other modes of transportation, such as air and car. IEA also notes that if intensive, aggressive rail transportation was implemented globally, carbon dioxide emissions could peak by the late 2030s.

“The next economy that wants to emerge by disrupting the carbon economy is a green economy,” said Christopher “Kip” Bergstrom, a project manager at the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management and member of the NAR steering committee. “Anything that carbonized is just a dead man walking.”

The NAR also promotes the idea that high-speed rail will create a more equitable society by allowing people to easily commute to work and by creating job opportunities and wealth redistribution within urban areas.

“The opportunity to reduce our carbon footprint, while simultaneously reducing income inequality, lies in re-localizing and shortening the chains of supply and distribution; and in building local wealth and redistributing it in a circular rather than extractive business model,” wrote Bergstrom in a white paper titled North Atlantic Rail: Building a Just and Green Economy.

The coronavirus pandemic has underscored a lot of these societal problems, making pushing this effort forward all the more urgent.

“I think it’s important to underscore, why now?” said John Flaherty, deputy director of Grow Smart Rhode Island, one of the NAR’s associated organizations. “This is about much more than improved mobility. It’s about an economic recovery, it’s about climate. In the Northeast 40 percent of the emissions are from the transportation sector … so unless we do something that’s bold and transformational, we’re never going to get our arms around that.”