On Friday, 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 been at any point since planning work 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 is true that it took a generation of discussions, planning and designing to get us to where we are today. But it is also true that 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, Richmond commuters spent roughly 16 hours a year stuck in traffic. Last year, Richmond commuters lost nearly double that — 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 or air travel from Richmond to other corridor cities be like in the future? 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 every dollar we invest in the Southeast Corridor will return more than double that in terms of public benefits.
Second, it is important to understand that Richmond 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, regional markets will be more tightly linked. Road congestion in the Richmond area is a growing problem, and the average flight delay at airports along the corridor is nearly an hour.
The proposed route from Richmond to Raleigh 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. Further analysis of the Southeast Corridor has found that businesses pay 46 percent less for employees to travel from Richmond to Washington by train than by car.
Citizens are voting for this with their train tickets. Virginia has seen close to a 100 percent increase in ridership on its regional trains in recent years. Businesses and government are primed to make the Southeast Corridor plan a reality.
So while we know it will not be possible to build this overnight, 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 thinking 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.