Thoughts on high-speed rail and technology-based economic development

A 220 mph High Speed Rail Preliminary Feasibility Study — prepared for the State of llinllinois Department of Transportation by the University of Illinois in collaboration with three private-sector engineering firms — cites in its introduction Gov. Quinn’s “vision to more closely connect the University of Illinois to Chicago” as the animating idea behind an interest in the southbound O’Hare-Chicago-Champaign ((and thence onward to either St. Louis or Indianapolis)) route as a priority for further study, evaluation, and development.

Whether this idea is a serious stab at improving university/industry linkages to a fairly remote campus or only a political stunt is hard to tell. I can find no further reference to the matter in Gov. Quinn’s public speeches or on the website of the University of Illinois system trustees. Regardless, it was a deliberate choice: Gov. Quinn already backs a well advanced project to serve Chicago-to-St. Louis with 110 mph service via Springfield, and there are several other credible possibilities in the envisioned Midwest High Speed Rail network, such as Chicago-to-Minneapolis.

But the idea of connecting the state’s principal city to the state’s own flagship research university at true high-speed (which is to say >155 mph, by all standards except those prevailing in the U.S.) apparently held enough appeal to warrant separate study. Under the vision for operation at maximum speed of 220 mph, rail travel time from Chicago to Champaign would drop from 2:10 on Amtrak currently to just 45 minutes via HSR.

That would be commuting distance, making visitation and collaboration much easier between Chicago’s industrial, financial, and technology communities and the engineering school at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ($545 million in annual R&D expenditures), or between basic biologists at UIUC and biomedical researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago ($380m). Yes, it’s true Chicago already has the University of Chicago ($453m), Northwestern ($618m) and IIT ($44m) in the private sector, but there’s something special about connection to the public-university system and its ethos of engagement. Certainly, The Daily Illini understood the potential for connecting students to job markets, and even a columnist for Crain’s Chicago Business who disdained the official 110-mph-to-Springfield plan allowed as how the “utopian,” true HSR to Champaign might actually be better for the state.

I am fairly certain that no one has ever considered an analogous priority in New York State. Even more so than Chicago, New York City is geographically isolated from the public university system’s largest best engineering schools and from the land-grant institution ((the state-affiliated ag college at Cornell, in the case of NYS)). SUNY’s research flagships and the state-chartered land grant college at Cornell rest in far-flung corners of the state: Buffalo (8 hours by Amtrak on a good day); Albany (2:30); Binghamton (just like Cornell in Ithaca, no longer reachable by rail at all); and Stony Brook (about 1:40 via the Long Island Railroad, usually involving at least one and sometimes two transfers on exposed, windswept platforms).

Not one of the state’s major public research campuses falls within easy travel distance of NYC, leaving the field in NYC to private institutions, a few niche SUNY campuses, and CUNY’s ever-under-resourced programs. More than six years ago, I wrote on the importance of engineering to NYC’s economic development, and while Mayor Bloomberg’s “applied sciences” initiatives with Cornell, Columbia, NYU, and Carnegie Mellon may have gotten us closer than we were five years ago, we’re still not where we should be.

Some days I think the best thing a New York governor could do for technology-based economic development in the broader NYC metro region would be to prioritize a one-seat (no-transfers), all-electric ride between New York City and SUNY’s Stony Brook University ($211m) and/or the nearby DOE Brookhaven National Laboratory (~$500m). Not even HSR — just minimally acceptable, modern service. SBU has a high-quality life-science research enterprise, growing engineering strength, and a commitment to economic development stronger than at any private institution currently operating at scale in NYC.

In scale, scope and general excellence, SUNY’s strongest all-around research campus is the University at Buffalo ($353m), which represents the very centerpiece of Western New York’s economic-development plans. No matter what, even by JetBlue (~1:20), Buffalo will never be within commuting distance of NYC, but there are several upstate cities with research capacity that could benefit from much closer and faster connections to Buffalo and among each other. Indeed, such connectivity is a premise of the SUNY Research Collaboration Fund, the intercampus Networks of Excellence, and related innovation initiatives of the Research Foundation for SUNY.

I myself once heard several Albany-based “angel investors” say that conventional transportation options between the Capital Region and the western part of the state were so bad that they were considering collectively chartering a once-a-week flight to scout and superintend their respective investments in Buffalo and Rochester. While you can get from any of the larger upstate cities to NYC by air (albeit at great cost and less convenience than a few years ago), you can no longer get from one to the other nonstop. You have to fly though a hub, often far out of the way, adding hours and uncertainty to travel plans, or you have to spend endless, unproductive hours driving the Thruway and feeder roads. This is a significant impediment to collaboration, to deploying New York State capital and expertise within the state, and therefore to the kind of S&T-based startup opportunities that upstate universities are producing.

And yet, if you look at NYS DOT’s High Speed Rail Empire Corridor Project’s latest online briefing you’ll find that a preliminary scoping study has already ruled out what the rest of the world would consider high-speed rail. Specifically, the study says that service at maximum speeds of 160 mph or higher would be “cost-prohibitive.” Henceforward, the only alternatives being considered by NYS DOT are the base case of 79 mph, “regional HSR” of 90 or 110 mph, or “core express HSR” at just 125 mph, which only under the idioscyncratic US DOT interpretation is considered HSR at all. So NYS DOT won’t even estimate ridership or conduct any rigorous cost-benefit analysis for service at the truly high speeds. (Actually this is somewhat better than the formal, federally supported HSR process in Illinois, which drew a similar line at just 110 mph, but it’s quite a bit worse than the conceptual study referenced at top.)

According to the NYS DOT study, at top speed of 125 mph, the number of daily trips between Albany and Buffalo could rise from 4 to 19 and between NYC and Albany from 13 to 24. That’s a big improvement, but at 220 mph maximum speed (though a somewhat-lower average, of course) I’d estimate Buffalo could instead have been put within 2.5 hours of Albany, with perhaps another 1 ¼ hours to NYC. That would not have been commuting distance for a research collaboration, but quite possibly adequate for the purpose of supervising commercial partnerships or investments involving parties for disparate sections of the state.

To continue with Albany, SUNY’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering ($248m), the site of the state’s enormously successful investment in advanced semiconductor technology, and SUNY UAlbany ($148m) and its often-underrated program in life sciences, remain stubbornly at around 2 hours’ travel time from NYC at the average speeds contemplated in the NYS plan. We can and should do better.

SUNY’s Binghamton University ($72m) and the land-grant and engineering functions at Cornell’s main campus at Ithaca are a separate challenge. Once, the City of Binghamton was a rail hub, and Ithaca was served by two of the eight railroads that used to connect the opposite ends of our state. But now all passenger rail service is gone, and the only options for connectivity are automotive. Of the three regional commercial airports in the Southern Tier, only Ithaca’s offers non-stop flights to NYC, and none offers direct service to the other significant upstate metro areas.

In 2006, when it first surveyed the possibilities for high-speed rail on the Empire Corridor, the NYS State Senate also blue-skyed the idea leveraging the enlightened plans of New Jersey and Pennsylvania to reconnect NYC to Scranton ((these days a non-trivial data center and back-office location for NYC, pace fans of “The Office”)) via a rehabilitated Lackawanna Cutoff, by further extending passenger service northward through Binghamton, Syracuse, Watertown, and Potsdam (three of these are research-university communities).

Map from 2006 State Senate Study

That vision held the potential over the long term for rebuilding rail routes connecting the world-class cities of New York, Toronto, and Montreal via New York State’s major upstate metros and their knowledge assets. With the deterioration in airline linkages, there is increased justification for “regional high-speed” service that might evolve over time to true HSR if demand and financing materialized. All that is downplayed to the point of near-absence in New York State’s current 2009 rail plan.

Of course, HSR is an expensive proposition, and the faster, the more expensive. There is vigorous debate among the think-tank community about its merits, with the pro case generally being made by planning-oriented liberals and the anti by libertarian conservatives (although there remains a “conservative case” for HSR that is embraced by certain actors in both the U.S. and the UK). This is not the place to resolve those debates. Certainly, HSR has to be justified on more than just abstract “would be nice for tbed” grounds. But it strikes me as a shame that we are not thinking broadly about the kind of ground transportation system we want over the next decades and figuring out with some rigor if we can justify the investments based in part on their impacts on the innovation economy.

Upstate New York has the dubious distinction of hosting several metro areas that have sprawled instead of grown, and anything we can do to counter-act that trend by connecting the core metropolitan cities and their institutional assets will pay dividends in many ways. By drawing our attention to the intellectual and commercial benefits of closer connections among major research institutions of excellence and the state’s major cities where capital and management talent cluster, Illinois has done New York State a favor.


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