Backers want to engineer Tucson-Phoenix high-speed rail

By Alyssa Newcomb


December 2, 2010

A high-speed rail line between Tucson and Phoenix would create jobs and relieve traffic congestion, an interest group contends.

“High-speed rail would have a pretty big and positive impact. It’s done a lot for job creation and economic development in other countries,” said Serena Unrein, a public interest advocate for the Arizona Public Interest Research Group, which released a study touting the benefits.

The group’s push comes as Arizona is considering a statewide rail plan that includes six possible routes for high-speed rail between the two cities.

The state lost out on any of an $8 billion federal investment in high-speed rail in January. But it got $500,000 – part of an additional $2.4 billion federal allocation – to further study the possibility of implementing a high-speed rail system in the state.

State Rep. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, said a high-speed rail project would bring jobs to the state at a time when they’re sorely needed.

“One of the number one things we need to do right now is provide jobs and boost the economy,” Farley said.

The Arizona Department of Transportation drafted the State Rail Plan in August of this year. According to the report, every $1 billion of investment in rail would yield 20,000 new jobs.

The PIRG report cited benefits in other countries with high-speed rail: 8,000 jobs to build the Channel Tunnel between England and France, a subsequent office-building boom in Lyon, France, and reduced car traffic between Madrid and Seville in Spain.

But the benefits seen in Europe may not be realized in this country, according to one expert.

“The population density is simply not high enough to warrant that kind of investment,” said Anthony Rufolo, a professor of urban planning at Portland State University.

“Jobs are not a benefit. You could spend that money and create jobs in any way,” he said. “The real question is, what are the transportation benefits that occur and how much are people willing to pay for them?”

The Southwest Rail Corridor Coalition, a group comprised of individuals, businesses, consulting firms and government agencies contends that bringing high-speed rail to the Southwest would be worthwhile.

Jay Smyth, chair of the coalition, said he’s traveled on high-speed rail in other countries.

“It’s the only way to travel,” he said. “[For Arizonans], I think there’s a safety feature by taking the train, versus using cars on Interstate 10.”

But Rufolo said that unlike other countries, the United States is “just too sparsely populated to make high-speed rail a reasonable, cost-effective investment in any but the most densely populated corridors.”

“When you start getting into lower-density areas, there’s simply not enough demand to warrant the capital expenditures,” he said.

With a statewide population that is expected to double by 2050, Unrein with PIRG said it’s time the state look toward a sustainable future.

“This is the time to really figure out how we’re going to build America’s infrastructure moving forward,” she said.

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