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Among the projects that spurred the most development in Fairfax County was the Capital
Beltway (I-495 and I-95), the 64-mile-long Interstate freeway that circles Washington, D.C.
Planned during the 1950's as part of the Interstate Highway System, the first section of the
Capital Beltway opened in 1961 and the entire highway was completed in 1964. (from Happy to Grow: Development and Planning in Fairfax County, Virginia)
Turning to the Northeast Corridor in New Jersey, the older cities that first developed with the railroad (and therefore before the car) are anything but affluent. Newark, Elizabeth, Rahway and on down to New Brunswick don't have rising property values, quite the opposite in fact. Then there are the more distant stops (80-100 km to NY) like Princeton Junction, Hamilton and Trenton that now have significant commuter ridership into New York.
Hamilton is a case in point. The station was built in 1999 on the site of an old factory. There is no town there, just a parking lot with 2,800 spaces. It is however right next to an interchange with Interstate 295. There were 1.5 million passengers trips to/from Hamilton in 2007 (tied for third most on the line). Just looking at weekday traffic, you can generate 1.4 million trips with 2,800 cars each day - in other words, pretty much all the feeder traffic comes in and goes out by car. This station has been a success because the railroad provided reduced travel time relative to commuting on the highway alone which in turn led to the car-based development of what very recently was farmland. That to me is the creation of sprawl. I can see this exact same process repeating with HSR unless there are restictions in land development.
Will this area one day fill in and become more urbanized? Perhaps. But look at what's happened to cities like those I already mentioned when it does fill in as well as age: growth stagnates, property values decline. The growth and money instead flow to the outer suburbs. This is once again an example of what has happened in the US and not Europe. The absolute key point here is that we've always had more open land available as well as reasonable travel times to continue to drive this process along.
Cost as you note is also an issue. I think one of the reasons there hasn't been more long distance commuting on the NEC on Amtrak are the absurdly high fares. A monthly ticket between NY and Philadelphia is $1242 and $972 from Trenton on Amtrak. It's $440 between NY and Trenton on New Jersey Transit. If nothing else, Amtrak's pricing is good for battling sprawl if not improving ridership.
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