The Sixties Are Back

History has a way of repeating itself. Forty years ago, confronted with the challenges of declining cities in the Northeast, Senator Claiborne Pell from Rhode Island outlined a bold vision: boost the region's economy, and particularly its cities, by building an effective network of high speed train travel from Boston to Washington. This vision was forgotten for many years, but it is making a comeback. And with the billions of dollars that Congress recently dedicated to Amtrak through the Rail Safety Act and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Pell's vision for an economy-boosting rail system could become a reality.

In 1966, Senator Pell wrote Megalopolis Unbound: The Supercity and the Transportation of Tomorrow, a farsighted book that envisioned the emergence of "Megalopolis," a system of connected cities and regions stretching from Maine to Virginia. Today planners call the Northeast and similar places "megaregions," whose linked networks of metropolitan regions with shared economies, infrastructure and natural resource systems make them the drivers of the Untied States and the global economy. The 11 megaregions identified by RPA's America 2050 program — of which the Northeast is one — are home to nearly three-quarters of the nation's population and an even larger share of its economy.

When Pell wrote his book almost half a century ago, virtually all of the Northeast's cities were in freefall, hemorrhaging jobs and residents as manufacturing activities fled to the Sunbelt and overseas. At the same time, the challenges of urban crime, poverty and racial isolation were pushing millions of middle class residents to the megaregion's burgeoning suburbs. Pell's vision, to revitalize urban centers with world-class networks of high speed rail and regional rail systems, inspired the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965, which started a federal effort to develop and demonstrate advanced high-speed rail technologies. For decades after that, however, federal commitment to Pell's far-reaching vision fell short.

In the last few decades, our highways have gone from freeway flying to gridlock: long stretches of I95, the Northeast's main street, are tied up in congestion for eighteen or more hours a day. The region's major airports are also among the most congested in the nation, subjecting millions of air travelers to unnecessary delays and uncertainty. And our commuter rail and urban transit systems, which carry the vast majority of U.S. heavy rail ridership, all face immense and growing deficits. The mobility systems that made the Northeast the envy of the world half a century ago now fail to compete with those of Europe and Asia. Travel times in the Northeast haven't improved much beyond those of the early 20th century, while virtually all of our European and Asian competitors have moved forward with the kind of high speed rail networks Senator Pell envisioned for the Northeast. Many of these systems, such as France's TGV and Japan's Shinkansen bullet trains travel at two or more times the average speed of Amtrak's fastest Acela trains, with records of on-time reliability that put Amtrak to shame.

And despite the recent success of Boston, New York, Washington and several smaller Northeastern cities, many of the Northeast's urban centers continue to lose jobs, residents and tax revenues and are home to an inordinate share of the megaregion's poor residents, foreclosed housing and failing schools.

When Senator Pell died on January 1, 2009, his vision for revitalizing the Northeast's urban centers and its rail infrastructure remained largely unfulfilled. But the tide could be turning, however slowly. In 2008 the federal Rail Safety Improvement Act authorized billions of dollars to be used to bring the Northeast Corridor back to a state of good repair. The $1.3 billion appropriated to Amtrak and $8.4 billion available for transit investments in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed into law by President Obama this week also help. Finally, the Transportation Reauthorization bill known as "T4," as well as important energy and climate bills all being considered by Congress this year, could and should continue to fund efforts to build an effective rail system, particularly in the Northeast.

It will take more than increased federal spending, however, to realize Senator Pell's vision. We've also got to spend the money effectively. Intercity and commuter rail services ought to be better integrated, for example; cities across the corridor ought to pursue a coordinated urban development strategy that revolves around our transit infrastructure. It is only when the communities of Northeast megaregion realizes that we share a common future, and that this future depends on the strength of our greatest asset — our rail system — that Pell's farsighted vision will be redeemed.