High Speed Rail has been a hotly debated topic across Upstate and Western New York for decades.
OK so maybe not hotly debated. More like warmly mumbled in the face of outright laughter, mostly by conservative voters who understandably balk at price tags in the tens of billions. Propelled by the efforts of the late congresswoman Louise Slaughter, the High Speed Rail conversation in New York State approached legitimacy during the 1990s and early 2000s. But pushing a transportation experiment with an unimaginable budget on a state that, outside of the vaunted Big Apple, has seen cataclysmic population decline in the very cities HSR would serve was seen as absurd.
The High Speed Rail debate in New York has quieted significantly over the last decade, but for a multitude of reasons, the argument for a faster train route across the Empire State makes more sense now than perhaps ever. Evidence of population uptick in nearly every major New York city proper, public and private economic investment and an event horizon of money emanating from New York City all give new credibility to HSR as a synergistic facilitator for personal and financial circulation across the state.
Train Versus Plane Versus Car
Let’s get this one out of the way, because this is what nobody thinks about when they fly from my home city of Rochester to New York City. Sure, it’s only about an hour flight… but you have to get to the airport in Rochester 60-90 minutes early, then deal with TSA and restrictions on luggage, board the plane, fly, disembark and THEN take 2 trains and an hour and a half trip to Manhattan. So really, you’re looking at about a 4 hour trip if not more.
If High Speed Rail connected Rochester with New York City, the trip would likely take around 4 hours, but you could arrive 5 minutes before the train departed (just like you can now) and have more more luggage freedom. Not to mention that on a train, you can get up, walk around, visit the cafe car, get some food, and sprawl out with plenty of legroom, unlike the plane. And when you arrive in New York City, you’d arrive in the heart of Manhattan, just as you do with the slower Amtrak trains that provide NYS service today.
How about visiting other New York cities? Well, just like in NYC, the train typically stops in or near the heart of these downtowns. With Uber, bike share, and buses, it’s relatively easy to get around after exiting the train. And hey, would you rather white-knuckle it down the I-90 Thruway for 70 minutes to get from Rochester to Syracuse, or would you rather sit in a comfortable seat for 40 minutes and have your hands free to use your phone, get work done or watch a movie?
Finally, with gas prices as high as they are, riding the train is a competitive transportation solution than ever from an economic standpoint.
An Exit Valve for NYC
In my travels across the state, one of the common threads I’ve seen is the meteoric emanation of financial investment radiating from New York City. This is not to say that the Big Apple is failing, quite the opposite… there is so much money flowing into it that the average artist, business owner or entrepreneur is stifled by the ever-increasing cost of living and doing business. The exit valve for this pressure-inducing and financially unapproachable environment has predominantly been the transportation corridor along the Hudson River, driven by Metro North and Amtrak. Yonkers, Poughkeepsie, Hudson, The Capitol Region… all have benefited from the mass exodus of investment from people who love the proximity to New York but can’t or won’t afford to do business within it. It’s no coincidence that frequent and reliable train service here has been a major factor in accommodating this financial migration.
Populations Are Rising In NYS Cities Once Again
After decades of population decline, cities across New York State are beginning to see population growth once again. Eight of the top ten fastest growing cities in New York State are within 10 miles of an already existing Amtrak or Metro North station that would or could support high speed rail. Six of these are within 3 miles of a station and 5 of them feature a downtown station (Buffalo, Rochester, Yonkers, Schenectady and Utica… Syracuse’s Amtrak station is located 2.8 miles north of its downtown). The three cities that have seen population increases across the last two census evaluations (Utica, Schenectady and New York City) all have already existing downtown Amtrak stations.
The New York High-Speed Rail argument was originally based on the idea that this type of investment could lead to an economic turnaround in New York State. But with city center populations increasing in urban areas across the state, the conversation can shift from the far-flung notion of HSR as a savior to the reality that HSR could now serve as an amplifier for already existing growth. Where HSR has been sold in the past as a life raft, it should now be pitched as an accelerant. The It’s always easier to justify massive financial investments as facilitators rather than saviors.
In The End
As I travel across New York State, I see massive investments in pro-density, pro-urban movements. And it’s working. From Utica to Buffalo and beyond, New York cities are positioning themselves as livable places once again, and population increases in a majority of urban NYS is the result.
If you would have told me ten years ago that my home city of Rochester, NY would have made the leaps forward that it has with regard to walkability, bike infrastructure, small business growth, downtown housing for all socioeconomic levels, quality of life additives, and general livability, I would have laughed. But I’m thrilled to have been proven wrong, and our city is better for it.
And while I still believe that High Speed Rail across the state is a long shot, population growth across New York State cities could be just the thing to turn the tables on the doubt that this transit solution could ever become a reality.
New York State… prove me wrong again.