Small rollouts are worth much much less than they would be if they were a part of a single interconnected rail network across the country
President Obama has promised to provide 80 percent of Americans with access to a three-tiered high-speed rail network within 25 years. About 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, and of course high-speed rail functions best as a link between major urban areas, so this is not a particularly ambitious goal. Still, the Obama Administration has consistently supported high-speed rail, and the $53 billion set aside for it in Obama’s budget proposal indicates he’s serious.
Few things in transportation spending get people riled up like high-speed rail, but there seems to be some bipartisan consensus for it. Rep. John Mica, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, is willing to discuss it. Although he routinely bashes Amtrak and considers HSR something just short of socialism, he has suggested funding go to the Northeast Corridor and its overloaded Boston-Washington line. His opinion counts for a lot because he’s worked closely with former committee chair (and HSR supporter) James Oberstar on several progressive high-speed rail measures.
Mica also will hold great sway over the Surface Transportation Authorization Act, the much-needed replacement for a federal transportation spending plan being held together with duct tape and bailing wire. The bill, if and when it’s ever passed, would have a shelf life of six years — which happens to be the timeframe Obama has outlined for spending that $53 billion.
Vice President Joe Biden, in a speech at a Philadelphia Amtrak station, said the funding would begin sometime this year with an $8 billion injection into two new accounts overseen by the Department of Transportation.
One account would be dedicated to rehabbing existing lines, including “temporary operating support to crucial state corridors while the full system is being developed.” As Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic suggests, this implies the administration anticipates non-participation by state governments.
We’re already seeing this. The new governors of Ohio and Wisconsin have canceled planned rail projects amid fiscal concerns — despite Washington’s offer to essentially pick up the tab for building the projects and limit each state’s role in financing the lines once built. Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Rick Scott has rejected rail even though the feds have approved funding.
Earlier disbursements from Washington were contingent upon the states agreeing to chip in to ensure local participation. But Biden’s announcement suggests a new strategy is afoot, one designed to tempt fiscally conservative state governments into signing on to HSR: Since you won’t throw in, we’ll foot the bill until you decide you’re ready to do your part.
Fact is, building HSR is a very expensive proposition. A figure like $53 billion seems like a vast sum until you put in terms of high-speed rail: California’s proposed line linking the Bay Area with Los Angeles is projected to cost $43 billion, and of course major infrastructure projects never come in as projected. Revamping the Northeast Corridor so trains can move at HSR speeds is pegged at more than $100 billion.
Obama’s proposal of $53 billion over six years suggests the Administration will take the same approach it took when it doled out $8 billion in the stimulus package: the Department of Transportation will solicit proposals from anyone interested in the money and award funding to a variety of projects to have the broadest possible impact. This approach encourages applicants to have some state money committed and suggest routes with high demand and at least a modicum of local support.
Most states, however, face budget deficits that, frankly, make high-speed rail look very unattractive. With many states cutting deeply, the last thing a lot of them want to do is throw money at rail. It doesn’t help that our roads, bridges and other infrastructure are crumbling beneath us. It’s hard to make the case for investing in the future when what you can barely afford to fix what you’ve already got. High-speed rail faces high hurdles, and will need huge backing from Washington if it is to catch on.
Although Obama appears serious, his commitment to high-speed rail will be sorely tested over the next year. The debate over his budget and the Surface Transportation Bill will be long and bitter, and high-speed rail will be a ripe target. Its success will depend upon how hard Obama wants to push the issue — and how hard opponents want to push back.
Photo: SignalPAD / Flickr. The Amtrak Acela Express in Boston.