Op-Ed: High-Speed Rail Plan Faces Obstacles

With the big push by the Biden administration for infrastructure work, there’s a call for creation of a “a high-speed rail spine” with trains moving at “150-200 mph” between New York City, across much of Long Island, and then from Port Jefferson through a tunnel to be dug under the Long Island Sound. The trains would emerge at New Haven, Connecticut and connect to Hartford, Providence and Boston.

“Linked to this spine will be a network of “high performance—110-120 mph—intercity rail links connecting all of New England’s mid-sized cities and Long Island’s major centers to each other and to New York and Boston,” stated a letter sent this month from 22 members of the House of Representatives to the leaders of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Representative Tom Suozzi, whose district includes Huntington, is leading the effort.

What’s being called the “North Atlantic Rail Network,” acronymed NAR, would be “the nation’s first integrated high-speed, performance and regional rail network serving the seven-state New York/New England region,” said the letter. “It can serve as a prototype for new 21st century rail networks in the nation’s other megaregions….This proposed network will underpin the continued growth and prosperity of the…region for decades to come… This region has long been one of America’s economic engines, with 11% of the nation’s population and 14% of its economy. NAR will address the severe and growing highway, rail and air congestion…”

The letter described the scheme as meeting “high priorities of the Biden Administration.”

Does the plan have a chance?

For starters, it would be expensive. At a now-estimated $105 billion, “the project would be among the most costly public works projects in American history,” relates Newsday. The possible availability of loads of federal infrastructure dollars softens this—although Republicans in Congress are not in tune with all the funding the Biden administration seeks. Then there is the projected time for construction: 20 years.

A model for high-speed (150 mph) trains exists in Europe. Once off such a train in Europe, you can easily get around on connecting trains, trolleys, buses, and not need a car. China now has the fastest high-speed trains in the world, moving at nearly 220 mph.

There are already critics of the NAR project. Priority for spending infrastructure dollars should be on “things that we need, not things that are fantasies,” says Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at NYU.

“High-Speed Rail on Long Island? Not So Fast,” was the headline of Stony Brook University professor of public policy, Richard Murdocco’s column “The Foggiest Idea.” He said the plan fails to “meet…more immediate infrastructural needs” and “policymakers should focus on encouraging transit ridership post-pandemic.”

There have been numerous proposals through the years for bridges and tunnels from Long Island to Westchester County or New England. They started in 1938 with the proposal by Royal Copeland, a three-term U.S. senator from New York State, for an island-hopping 18-mile bridge from Orient Point and then across Plum, Great Gull and Fishers islands landing in Groton, Connecticut or Watch Hill, Rhode Island.

In the 1960s, Robert Moses pushed unsuccessfully for bridge from Oyster Bay to Rye.

In 1979, New York Gov. Hugh Carey set up a tristate advisory committee to consider cross-Sound bridges from sites at Riverhead, Wading River, East Marion, Port Jefferson and Orient Point. But the panel found that expanding cross-Sound ferry service was preferable.

In 2003, there was a drive by the Long Island Association and the Construction Trades Council of Nassau and Suffolk Counties for a tunnel starting at Exit 68 on the LIE going under a 100,000-acre pine barrens state preserve and then the Sound to New Haven.

Bob Yaro, president of the Regional Planning Association, warned: “That far east on Long Island there are apt to be very serious growth impacts.”

Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, protested: “Some Long Island leaders are still in denial that this is an island, not a highway to New England.”

Meanwhile, there’s that relatively slow but pleasant way to leave eastern or central Long Island, if you have the time—ferries from Orient Point to New London or Port Jefferson to Bridgeport. The latter line was founded in 1883 by backers including P.T. Barnum and has outlived his circus.

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