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Globe Editorial

Northeast must not let inertia doom hopes of high-speed rail

April 3, 2011

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IT’S ENCOURAGING, up to a point, that Massachusetts officials are taking advantage of the sudden availability of more federal high-speed rail money to seek $110 million to replace a 92-year-old bridge in Haverhill. The bridge has become a bottleneck, slowing MBTA commuter trains and Amtrak’s Downeaster service to Maine.

But when the best proposal officials could devise was to fix up an aging bridge — one outside the busy route to New York and Washington, no less — it exposed a lack of vision regionwide. Instead of just tinkering with existing rail lines, Massachusetts and the rest of the Northeast should be working to bring the next generation of true high-speed trains to the region.

With a rail-friendly president, congested airports, and rising gas prices, the political and economic case for moving to Asian- and European-style high-speed trains running at 200 miles per hour has never been stronger. Unfortunately, the biggest beneficiary of President Obama’s rail program so far has been California, in part because the Northeast lacked any “shovel-ready’’ plans for such high-speed trains when the federal stimulus was unveiled in 2009.

One reason the Northeast has been complacent is that Amtrak already offers a somewhat upgraded service, Acela, between Boston and Washington. But the Acela route isn’t a long-term high-speed rail solution, especially the section in New England. It’s too curvy, and it shares its tracks with too many commuter and freight railroads. The existing Northeast Corridor route will always be an important transit artery, but it’s unlikely a service at bullet-train speeds will ever run on its tracks.

Recognizing this, Amtrak released a plan last year that suggested a new, dedicated route from Boston to Washington that would cost $117 billion and reduce travel time to New York to a mere 83 minutes. From Boston, the route would skip Providence and pass through Hartford instead. One might quibble with some details, but the Amtrak plan is the credible starting point for a serious discussion of routes that needs to begin now.

Decisions about routing trains are bound to be controversial, both for areas where new track will be built and for cities that are left off the route. States in the region need to create a powerful entity that can keep high-speed rail from falling victim to squabbling or inertia. The drawbacks of the current patchwork governance of the region’s rail infrastructure became clear last year when New Jersey governor Chris Christie canceled a long-planned tunnel between New York City and New Jersey because of rising costs. States should be able to agree on the broad outlines of the region’s rail goals, but giving every governor a veto over the details of routes and stations would guarantee gridlock.

While the price tag is hefty, faster connections between the region’s urban centers will produce even greater economic benefits — which Boston businesses will measure in reduced hotel stays and taxi rides in New York. The daunting logistical and political challenges help explain why for many years high-speed rail was viewed as a pie-in-the-sky project. But now that high-speed rail’s moment has suddenly arrived, states like California that soldiered on with their plans despite the challenges are reaping the rewards.

Northeast leaders must start making tough choices now, so that as more money becomes available from Washington, the region is ready for it.