Today a critical segment of the Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor received the all-clear. By completing an environmental impact statement to develop service between Richmond and Raleigh, we are now closer to a groundbreaking than we have ever been since planning began in the early 1990s.
Now we have to ask ourselves a simple question: How do we keep the effort to build a powerful Southern rail network connecting Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh and Richmond to Washington, D.C., and Northeast Corridor service moving full speed ahead?
It took a generation of discussions, planning and designing to get us to where we are today. But we do not have another generation to reach the finish line. High-speed rail in this region is not a luxury; it is a necessity, and the clock is ticking. If we cannot figure out how to build this network soon, it is not hyperbole – it is a fact – that the South is going to be stuck in traffic for a very long time.
Back when planning for the Southeast corridor started, Raleigh commuters spent roughly 20 hours a year stuck in traffic. Last year Raleigh commuters lost 34 hours. Granted, this is still below the growing national average. But will it stay this way when there are 18 million more people, as the America 2050 study found, competing for the region’s road and airport spaces as we know them? What will rush-hour driving from Raleigh to other cities in this corridor be like under these conditions? A recent U.S. Department of Transportation report, Beyond Traffic, in turn found that our country will add 70 million more people by 2045 and that the Southeast will indeed absorb a high percentage of that growth.
Passenger rail can be a release valve for a lot of that additional traffic. It also can provide a more efficient, greener option than any other form of intercity travel. But ultimately the benefits are far more wide reaching.
For one, the Federal Railroad Administration has found that the return for every dollar we invest is more than double that in terms of public benefits. Just in North Carolina, it has been estimated that the Southeast corridor would have a positive economic impact in the towns it passes through of $700 million in additional state and local tax revenues.
It also is important to understand that Raleigh and the other cities and towns along the corridor are more than just neighbors, so to speak. As the region adds more residents and its economy expands, markets will be more tightly linked. The proposed route from Raleigh to Richmond will in effect pull the cities closer together by cutting 75 minutes off the current train trip, making rail faster than even today’s traffic-free car trip.
From another perspective, today it is not particularly practical for someone in Raleigh to take the train to Washington for business. The train takes six hours. However, if the Southeast corridor is fully built, the trip would be almost two hours shorter. This means someone could get on a train in the morning, use the time while in transit productively, be in the nation’s capital before lunch and be back in Raleigh in time for a late dinner.
Citizens are voting for this with their train tickets. Train ridership between Raleigh and Charlotte has grown by roughly 100,000 in recent years, and Virginia has seen close to a 100 percent increase in ridership on its regional trains. Businesses and government are primed to make the Southeast corridor plan a reality.
We know it will not be possible to build this overnight, but let’s not get caught up in obstacles or slowed down by a we’ll-build-this-eventually mentality. The Department of Transportation is bullish about rail and continues to push for predictable, dedicated federal funding for intercity passenger rail. In the meantime, the department has invested $691 million in foundational improvements to the Southeast corridor and recently committed to undertake a $1 million planning effort in the region.
Rather than think long-term, we should focus instead on what can be done to break ground as soon as possible. After all, this is not a vision whose time has come, but a vision that is long overdue.
Anthony Foxx, a former mayor of Charlotte, is the secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.