High speed rail in New York would cost billions. Is it worth it?

Albany Business Review / To decide on the right transportation solution, we first need to decide on the goal.

Photo by Daniel Abadia / Unsplash

One things is clear: Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to build high speed rail connecting New York City, Albany and Buffalo would cost tens of billions of dollars. What isn’t clear is how that investment would pay off.

There’s a near-unanimous sense among politicians and often the general public that high speed rail would translate directly to economic growth. But that’s not always the case — in places like Spain, France and Japan, the impact of building high speed rail has ranged from transformative to nonexistent.

Here’s a look at what New York might be able to expect:

Economic and job growth

The part of high speed rail projects that’s certain to create economic activity is building out the rail network. Any project of that scale comes with its share of planning, design, and construction jobs.

That kind of economic boost is temporary by definition, but could be a tool for generating jobs in areas of the state that need them.

Whether high speed rail spurs lasting economic development after construction is disputed.

Research from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University looked at high speed rail in Japan, Spain and China. The experiences in all three countries showed that high speed rail encouraged more longer-distance commuting to and from major employment centers, which meant most newly-connected cities saw little economic boost, and some even saw economic drain.

Another study of the Shinkansen system in Japan — which built a new high speed rail line every four years between 1964 and 2004 — concluded that high speed rail provided one-time increases in gross domestic product, but did not boost long-term growth.

It’s unclear if any of the cities along the Empire Corridor would benefit from new connections. A strong rail connection already exists between New York City and Albany, and the Thruway directly connects Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo. In other places with mature infrastructure, the impacts of high speed rail have been limited.

Changes in housing prices

High speed rail can have a big effect on how people commute and where they to choose to live. If you can travel faster, you might be motivated to move farther away from work.

In Japan, that led to more real estate development in the suburbs and exurbs, which decreased housing prices by vastly increasing supply. It also took pressure of home prices in big cities.

It’s not all that different from how the Interstate 87 Northway helped grow suburbs in northern parts of the Capital Region. But high speed rail moves much faster, and it carries only passengers (not freight), meaning it could be an even more powerful force for sprawl.

The silver lining is that high speed rail could lead to more affordable housing both in major cities and outlying suburbs.

Increased tourism spending

If it’s easier and quicker to travel between cities in New York, it might follow that more travelers would visit Albany, Syracuse, Rochester or Buffalo.

study of high speed rail in Europe and Asia, however, found that this effect mostly applied to major cities with well-established tourist attractions. In other words, the likes of New York City, Paris or Berlin are much more likely to see a tourism boost than places like Syracuse or Zaragoza.

And even if the number of tourists did increase, it could be offset by shorter stays. If travelers can easily go back and forth from a city in one day, the incentive the stay the night, especially on business trips, is much lower.

The bottom line

In some ways, the question before New York is not whether or not to build high speed rail. The question is how the state wants to spend its limited infrastructure budget.

Maybe building high speed rail to connect the state’s biggest cities is the right idea. But there are certainly alternatives.

We could simply improve the train service we already have: run more frequent trains, improve on-time performance and make the ride more enjoyable with more amenties on board.

Or we could improve the Thruway, invest in maintenance and keep our highways moving.

Or we could continue developing our airports and adding new flights.

To decide on the right solution, we first need to decide on the goal.