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What High Speed Rail Means for Community Design

In his state of the union address, President Obama called for 80 percent of Americans to have access to high-speed rail by 2025. An ambitous goal, but perhaps more achievable given Vice President Biden and U.S. Transportation Secretary LaHood just announced the administration was going to invest more than $53 billion in high-speed rail, adding to the $10.5 billion spent so far. According to The Washington Post, the U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSR) says Obama's plans would cost $600 billion over twenty years. The bulk of those funds will need to be from the private sector, given the dire financial straights of federal and state governments.  To finance high speed rail, public sector bodies will need to partner with private-sector rail operators as well as transit oriented development (TOD)-focused real estate developers. High speed rail stations provide an enormous opportunity to recoup the huge amounts needed for high speed rail lines, but will need to be well-integrated into communities if operators expect them to be widely used. Smart design can help ensure the public sees high speed rail as a viable transportation option.  

The Case for High Speed Rail

At a USHSR conference, Ron Sims, Deputy Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) argued that sustainable communities offer "efficient housing" (or housing near work), provide "multi-modal" transit, and create economic growth that benefits all residents. High speed rail is just a matter of the "efficient allocation of resources." Sims relayed the twenty-plus history involved in adding one extra lane to King County's airport, which brought out lawsuits and carried enormous expense. He said because of the expense of creating airports, it's expensive to move people between cities by plane. In comparison, high speed rail is the "cheaper of multiple nodes." HUD is interested in high speed rail because new stations can offer an important platform for community revitalization. "High speed rail can open up corridors and communities, spur job growth and create a more competitive future."

Stuart Sirota, an urban planner with TND planning, said in order for high speed rail to work for communities, high speed rail must be seamlessly integrated with regional transit networks and transit-oriented developments (TODs), including compact, walkable places. In addition, those inter-city high speed rail networks must function as centers for multiple layers of transit — regional transit as well as local light rail. The vision: someone can walk to a local light rail station and then transfer to a regional line, and soon end up at a high speed rail station. Manfred Ohrenstein, a lawyer, added that rail corridors like the the one found in the northeast are most valuable than any state-based rail network.

Rail Provides Opportunities for Transit Oriented Development

In Washington, D.C., Akridge, a developer of high-end, "super LEED platinum" buildings and winner of four E.P.A. smart growth awards, is planning the development of Burnham Place at Union Station, one of the busiest train stations in the U.S., with 35 million passengers per year. The idea to create 2.5 million square feet of office, retail, residential, and hotel space on a new engineered platform above the rail yards. The property will be rezoned to enable mixed-use development, providing 2.5 million square feet of usable space. While this development will involve working with Amtrak and regional rail, this concept could easily be use to pay for the retrofit of older stations that need to re-engineer themselves to provide high speed rail service.

Steve Goldin, WMATA TOD, seemed to value Akridge's approach. He argued that "TOD provides a huge opportunity to subsidize the cost of expensive high speed rail networks." Furthermore, each station will need to designed to maximize commerical opportunities because you can't have too many stops along a high speed rail line (otherwise, it would be a local). "Stops need lots of density. You can't have too much density." Goldin offered a play-by-play account of how a smart public agency could accumulate the land needed for the stations and complimentary TOD developments, which are critical to recouping the costs of the network. "70 percent of land needs to be under control before announcing plans. You make money when you buy the land." He added that a "quasi-public agency could also be set up to do the land deals out of the public eye, but for the public's benefit." Lastly, Goldin said don't forget mixed-use in the TOD developments along with parking.

In another instance of development around a railyard, David Scott, Arup, explained the new project on the west side of New York City that will use 26 acres of railyards to create a 13.2 million square feet development, including 1.2 million square feet of retail. "This will be in the heart of Manhattan, down the road from Penn station." Scott went into detail on the technical challenges involved, which relate to fire prevention, ventilation, and lighting. Another model for high speed rail stations.

Smart Station Design Is Vital

Andrew Whalley, Grimshaw Architects, outlined how his firm revamped a few older train stations in the UK to make way for high speed rail, and covered a few brand new stations in the UK and Australia. The UK is already working on its second high speed rail line, HighSpeed2, and Australia is creating a line that will run from Brisbane to Melbourne.

Whalley argued that stations have the potential to have a "huge impact on communities." As a result, it's important to "plan for that instead of just letting that happen." Given the number of passengers on a rail line eventually reach a maximum, meaning that there's only so much revenue that can be gotten from passenger ticket sales, stations represent a major opportunity for growth. Existing, even historic, stations can be re-configured for high speed rail.

"Stations need to be designed for people." Everyday commuters represent one segment of station users, but there's also the high speed rail rider who must "experience the thrill of departure." This means that high speed rail stations must effectively work like ports and be integrated into existing transportation networks. London's Paddington station was revamped to enable easy access to the airport train and local transit.  Within the station, there are now multiple entry points and levels, a doctor's office and pharmacy. However, a historic station like London's Paddington station should only be reconfigured to make it more functional and efficient, Whalley argued. Mixed-use development, including retail and hotels, was added around the station to help offset the costs.

Other stations like Waterloo station in the UK, and Amsterdam's main station had to be reconfigured to allow for high speed trains that are four times wider than normal trains. Holland used a public-private scheme to finance the redevelopment of a depressed community near its central rail station. The city put up 30 percent of the capital costs to help sure the redevelopment spread beyond the station. In addition, the original plan involved turning aspects of the new stations, like viaducts, into public spaces (no word on whether they were actually used). "Natural daylight is critical to making these places work. They change the perception of the environment."

For Melbourne's new station, the station's undulating roof was designed to be a focal point in the city, and "expression of reinvigoration." The roof undulates for a reason though. Instead of expensive air ventilation and fire proofing systems, the space is cooled by the air movements across the roof. "Any architectural statement must have a function or purpose."

It seems that the U.S. high speed rail networks of the near future in Florida and California will need to use public-private approaches to finance expansion and make smart use of TOD-developers to earn revenue. As Goldin noted, out of all the high speed rail lines out there, only the high speed rail lines in Japan and France have made back their initial investments. But perhaps a highly commercial environment in and around stations will be a small price to pay for high speed rail.

Image credit: (1) Paddington Station High Speed Trains / 4 Rail Net, (2) Southern Cross Station, Melbourne, Australia.