New York’s high-speed rail project faces long delay

ALBANY — It’s unclear exactly what is delaying the arrival of high-speed rail in New York State.

But on Thursday, the Federal Railroad Administration said a major milestone — the completion of the final environmental impact statement, scheduled for Friday — would take another nine months.

The study would identify among half a dozen alternatives to pursue.

The high-speed train project, launched in 2009 with a series of events to gather public feedback, has faced numerous delays over the past decade.

Alternatives range from increasing top speeds to 90mph – the current top speed on the route between Schenectady and Western New York is 79mph – up to 125mph, the most expensive choice, requiring tracks completely new. An alternative is to do nothing.

Passenger rail advocates had been encouraged by the progress made when the FRA website announced that the final EIS, as it is called, would be published in the Federal Register on Friday. But a spokesperson for the state Department of Transportation said this week it was not aware the EIS would be released, adding that the state DOT was continuing to work on the project with the FRA. .

Asked about the planned release, the FRA said on Friday afternoon that “we have checked internally and learned that the project schedule has been revised”.

The agency did not immediately provide details on what could be causing the delays.

But passenger rail advocates weren’t happy, especially in light of the commitments the newly elected Biden administration is making to Amtrak nationally, and with Amtrak’s own ambitious plans to bring service to cities. fast growing, especially in the south and west. .

“The Empire State Passengers Association is very disappointed with the Federal Railroad Administration’s recent action to defer by more than a year the scheduled release date of the Level I Environmental Impact Statement for the Empire Corridor in New York City. having recently set an April 2, 2021 release date,” said Steve Strauss, Executive Director of ESPA. “With Amtrak’s just-announced system expansion proposal and President Biden’s U.S. jobs plan offering $80 billion for passenger and freight rail improvements, this is a big setback for New York. ESPA will work with our state and federal officials to determine the cause of this unacceptable delay.”

CSX owns the tracks that Amtrak trains use west of Schenectady and opposes higher speeds as a risk to its own crews, who operate dozens of freight trains on the route.

Meanwhile, the Amfleet I cars used on the Empire Corridor, as the route from New York to Buffalo via Albany is called, are among the oldest in the railroad’s fleet.

New York State has built new railroad stations at many locations along the corridor, including Rensselaer, Schenectady, and most recently Buffalo. After years of efforts by ESPA, a second track between Albany and Schenectady has been restored, removing a bottleneck that was disrupting train schedules.

The lack of fast and frequent trains west of Schenectady may be a headwind for economic development efforts in the upstate. There is no scheduled air service between Albany and Buffalo, and trains typically take five hours to make the trip. Lake effect squalls can make driving difficult during the winter months.

And then there is the age of the current study. Some data is now more than ten years old, so new data will probably be needed.

And the time?

“Another nine-month delay is laughable on April Fool’s Day,” observed Bruce Becker, communications director for ESPA.

Jose P. Rogers