I don't know anyone who would classify the drive on I-10 from Phoenix to Tucson as particularly enjoyable. There are often construction delays, traffic is always heavy (but still travelling at 75 mph), semi-trucks abound, and it seems like stretches of I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson are regularly closed due to accidents (it happened again just last week).
It all makes the idea of a high-speed rail line that would deliver me from downtown Phoenix to downtown Tucson in 30 minutes incredibly compelling. It's an idea we've been talking about in Arizona for many years now. Governor Napolitano talked about it in her first term. A year and a half ago, Arizona-based Solar Bullet LLC proposed a 220mph solar-powered bullet train. (In its first phase, the train would connect Tucson and Phoenix at an estimated cost of $27 billion).
The concept of high-speed intercity rail has been buzzing around nationally, too. In early 2009, Congress added $9.3 billion in the American Reinvestment and Economic Recovery Act for development of high speed rail and other intercity rail. And just yesterday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told a Las Vegas gathering of transportation officials from western states that he expects 80 percent of American cities to be connected by high-speed rail in 25 years (at a total cost of $500 billion).
Europe has long thrived on intercity (and international) train service. Japan has high-speed trains. Even China is set to open 42 new high-speed lines (with trains that travel at more than 210 mph) by 2012. So is it an idea that is long-overdue in the U.S.?
It depends. And here's why, by my - ahem - "economist-speak:"- on-the-one-hand and on-the-other-hand argument:
On one hand, America's 11 emerging megaregions (including the Sun Corridor - see map below) are already home to 70 percent of Americans, and will continue to grow. These regions - 100 to 600 miles across - have interconnected economies that necessitate easy travel within the regions. Often, highways are already too congested yet distances not long enough to make air travel a sensible alternative. In many cases, existing rail lines could be used for high-speed rail.
It's hard to understate the importance of making travel within these megaregions easy. As Robert D. Yaro, president of Regional Plan Association wrote in the New York Times, "Unless we build high-speed rail systems, we will find ourselves at a growing competitive disadvantage caused by increasing congestion and inefficiency in moving people and goods. We can't afford not to build a national high-speed system. It's not the only infrastructure investment needed to secure our economic futures. But it's one that will be essential to our future mobility and competitiveness."
On the other hand, public transportation of any kind only makes sense if people use it. In the Land of the Free, we have often proved reluctant to give up our personal automobiles. Except where driving that personal automobile is an outrageous hassle or expense - like in Manhattan, where everyone rides the train and subway, or in Chicago, where the elevated train is well-used. (Unlike Los Angeles or St. Louis, where the light rail is not heavily used.)
Does driving between Phoenix and Tucson classify as that outrageous hassle? It well could. But - and this is a big but - can high-speed rail get me from where I am to where I want to go? Commuter rail lines in the New York area work because they're easy to get to from the various suburbs and then, once you're in Manhattan, getting to the specific spot you want to go is also easy by subway, or by walking.
Consider a high-speed rail from downtown Phoenix to downtown Tucson, then: if I'm starting from and going to either place, great for me (or if I'm close to a light rail stop that will take me to the high-speed rail station). But say I'm in Chandler and I want to go to Tucson. Is it easier to drive my car and park at the high-speed rail station in Phoenix then ride to the high-speed rail station in Tucson, then take the trolley and/or walk to my actual destination? What if the trolley doesn't go where I want it to go? And it's 110° outside? I might then find it easier to simply hop on the I-10 and deal with the drive directly to where I want to go.
We have a good example in our neighbor to the east, New Mexico, which built a 100-mile train between Santa Fe and Belen, through Albuquerque. Because it runs on track that already existed, the system cost a relatively modest (as far as these things go) $400 million to build. Its operating cost last year was $22 million -14% of that cost is covered by fares; another 7% comes from the BNSF Railway and Amtrak; 7% comes from the state; 18% comes from the federal government (though that funding will end next year); and 54% of the Rail Runner's funding comes from a statewide sales tax. To be fair, while the system doesn't come close to "paying for itself," most public transportation systems don't, and even roadways are paid for in some part with non-user generated funds.
Let me be clear, here, though: I think these are critical considerations, and issues we'll have to tackle as we think about planning a successful high-speed mass transit connection between Phoenix and Tucson, but I don't think they're insurmountable issues. Europe and Japan are much more densely populated places, like the Eastern U.S. coast, but China is much more spread out (like Arizona or New Mexico) - and high-speed rail has worked well there so far.
I wouldn't yet say that we can't afford to not build a high-speed rail line in the Sun Corridor, but I absolutely believe that we can't afford to not think about it.