NextGen and High-Speed Rail: Two Projects to Relieve Air Traffic Congestion

Aggregate daily flights into and out of the New York metropolitan area's airports.
Aggregate daily flights into and out of the New York metropolitan area's airports. (The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey)
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

AGOOD ARGUMENT for the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) and for high-speed rail can be seen in a graphic of aggregate daily air traffic over the New York area -- thick knots of congestion caused, in part, by antiquated air traffic control systems and by folks jamming the skies with relatively short trips.

According to a January report by the Business Alliance for Northeast Mobility, more than 20 percent of all flights out of the major New York-area airports travel less than 350 miles, with "the vast majority" to destinations within the Northeast region. High-speed rail would give those fliers a reliable alternative. Amtrak's Acela, the nation's only high-speed rail service, runs between Washington, New York and Boston. While Acela has a top speed of 135 miles per hour on its Washington-to-New York run, the average speed on that route is 83 mph. High-speed trains in Japan average 180 mph.

President Obama seeks to change this. Last month, he released a strategic plan that identified 10 corridors for high-speed rail ranging between 100 miles and 600 miles that could be eligible for federal funding. Attention would be shown to Acela. Mr. Obama would plunk down $8 billion authorized in the stimulus package and $5 billion over the next five years. That is a drop in the bucket; a proposed line between Anaheim, Calif., and San Francisco alone carries an estimated cost of $34 billion and would take 10 years to build. But this is a worthwhile down payment on a transportation system that would benefit the environment.

Mr. Obama calls high-speed rail "long overdue." So is a modern air traffic control system. A car GPS navigation unit is more advanced than the 1950s-era equipment being used today. The Federal Aviation Administration is putting the pieces in place to make NextGen fully operational. It would allow more planes to get into and out of the air faster, relieving airport congestion and reducing delays. This is especially important for the New York area. A third of all U.S. flights go through the region, and a hiccup at any of its four major airports can affect two-thirds of the nation's air traffic.

But it is not clear how the FAA will pay for key components of NextGen. The Bush administration proposed that general aviation (think corporate jets) pay more of its fair share through increased fuel taxes and that commercial airlines pay higher airport user fees. The Obama administration, awaiting confirmation of its nominee for FAA administrator, hasn't made its preferences known. We look forward to hearing what it proposes. Without the one-two punch of a modernized air traffic control system and an interconnected high-speed rail system, Mr. Obama's vision of revolutionized transportation will go unfulfilled, and the knots in that map will choke air travel in New York and beyond.

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