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New York high-speed rail gets a boost

(The following story by Robert J. McCarthy appeared on the Buffalo News website on September 18, 2009.)

BUFFALO, N.Y. — A national think tank studying the potential for high-speed rail service ranks New York’s chances fairly high, even if it doesn’t envision fast trains zipping across the state any time soon.

America 2050, a coalition of regional planners, scholars and policy-makers that studies future growth, ranks the approximately 420-mile rail corridor between Manhattan and Buffalo at 43rd out of 50 potential routes recommended.

But considering that the ranking stems from 27,000 city pairings studied, the planners say Buffalo and other upstate cities along the route should be encouraged by prospects for at least some major improvements in rail travel.

“The fact that the Buffalo-to-New York corridor is in the top 50 is actually quite good,” said Petra Todorovich, spokeswoman for America 2050. “It’s unlikely in 10 years you’ll have 200-mph trains from New York to Buffalo. But it’s certainly possible Buffalo could procure hundreds of millions of dollars for studies resulting in trip time savings and reduced delays.”

New York State has submitted a detailed application — including almost $170 million for projects in Rochester, Buffalo and Niagara Falls — for stimulus money aimed at high-speed rail between New York City and Buffalo.

If the application succeeds, the funds would be used for various incremental improvements in existing passenger rail service with the goal of reducing travel time. The applications, totaling $564.8 million, cover 38 projects across the state.

Jennifer Post, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, said the state is pleased with the rankings but believes they could be better. She noted that criteria such as existing infrastructure were not considered.

And Don Hannon, the DOT’s director of integrated modal services, noted that other studies using different criteria have resulted in even higher rankings for the Buffalo-to-New York City corridor.

In addition, he questioned why Toronto was not included in the corridor, given its huge population.

“Certainly, the connections New York State has to Toronto and Montreal are critical and important criteria,” Hannon said.

He said the state’s application for initial consideration includes projects with strong credentials.

“We think New York State will be well positioned,” he said. “We want to be part of this. We’re ready to go.”

While corridors such as New York to Washington and Los Angeles to San Francisco ranked in the top five, Todorovich noted that several routes studied overlap each other — strengthening the New York State route in the rankings. But she also noted that many of the routes gaining top rankings stem from their strong economies and other factors such as congestion.

“That’s not Buffalo,” she said.

Still, she added that other studies have urged high-speed rail projects as an economic development tool.

The rankings were based on six criteria: potential passengers, optimal distance (100 to 500 miles), potential for connections to transit, economic productivity, auto congestion, and location within metropolitan regions with shared economies, infrastructure and natural resources.

Many officials, like Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, tout New York’s existing rail infrastructure as a major advantage over proposed corridors built from scratch. They point out that the CSX Railroad “Water Level Route” stretching from New York all the way to Chicago at one time supported four tracks (there are now two in most areas) and that a third track could be constructed with relative ease in the existing right of way.

Todorovich said Thursday that existing infrastructure was not included in the criteria used to determine the new rankings.

Slaughter was unavailable to comment Thursday.

Friday, September 18, 2009

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