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Obama’s 2014 Transpo Budget Calls for Higher Spending, HSR

The Obama Administration has put forward an opening bid in what are sure to be contentious 2014 budget negotiations, issuing a solidly progressive transportation budget that calls for increased overall spending and continued investment in passenger rail.

The 2014 transportation budget proposal put forward by the Obama Administration calls for increased infrastructure spending and continued focus on passenger rail. Image: Christian Science Monitor

The $76 billion transportation budget would represent a 5.5 percent, or $4 billion, spending increase over 2012 levels.

In addition, the president repeated his call for $50 billion in stimulus-style funding in 2014. Of this one-time funding infusion, $40 billion would be reserved for “fix-it-first” projects aimed at bringing the nation’s roads, bridges, and transit systems into a state of good repair. The other $10 billion would be offered on a competitive basis to “innovative” projects, through programs like TIGER.

The $50 billion infrastructure-spending stimulus is a proposal we’ve seen Obama float several times in the last few years. In the 2014 budget proposal it is again packaged as a jobs program.

“These investments would create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the first few years and in industries suffering from protracted unemployment,” the document says.

The administration’s budget also demonstrates that the president has not abandoned his high-speed rail ambitions. The budget proposes $40 billion for passenger rail programs over five years, aimed at making rail more widely accessible and convenient. It’s essentially his outline for a passenger rail (PRIIA) reauthorization. He even stuck to his goal of providing 80 percent of Americans with rail access, though years of funding setbacks have tempered his ambitions some — he now pledges that 80 percent of the population will have “convenient access to a passenger rail system, featuring high-speed service” — not that they’ll all have high-speed rail service.

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Keeping CNN Honest: 10 Ways Anderson Cooper Got the Rail Story Wrong

Last Friday, CNN’s Anderson Cooper ran a segment about high-speed rail as part of his “Keeping Them Honest” series. Reporter Drew Griffin did an “exposé” of a Vermont rail project that spent .00006 percent of the federal stimulus money on needed track improvements and came in on time and under budget. Scandal!

It amounts to a high-profile smear campaign on the high-speed rail program from a mainstream media source trying to expose government corruption and waste where none exists. Cooper makes it clear they’re going to stay on the story; they already did a similar takedown of the California rail program.

I’ve counted ten ways this story was misreported. Let me know in the comments if I’ve missed any…

1. Higher-speed rail is not a failure. Perhaps the Obama administration could have done a better job making clear that their rail program was split into two halves: one for high-speed rail and one for incremental upgrades to inter-city passenger rail. Not all of the projects were intended to bring speeds up to 110 mph.

“We’ve never been very public about this but, yes, we’ve felt for a long time that the administration has done a poor job around messaging,” said Dan Schned of the Regional Plan Association. “The bulk of the money went to regional projects, but they still had the secretary going around the country and calling this the ‘high-speed program.’”

The crux of the CNN story is that while the Vermont project did everything it set out to do and was a responsible steward of taxpayer money, it’s not “the high-speed rail that you or I think of.” Well, no. There’s a reason for that.

2. It takes more than three years to build high-speed rail. Cooper embarrassed himself when he ominously intoned that three whole years after the passage of the stimulus (actually, it’s been four years), “we can’t find any high-speed rail that’s actually been built.” They show images of almond trees and dairy farms in California along the planned route. “Not a single piece of track on that line has been built.”

True – they plan to break ground this summer in California. But, as House Republicans constantly complain, highway projects can take up to 15 years to complete. There are lots of reasons for that, which I won’t delve into here. But to expect something as massive and complex as high-speed rail to instantly appear like magic the minute the deal is inked is, well, a little naïve. Federal Railroad Administration Chief Joe Szabo calls high-speed rail “a multi-generational effort,” noting that it took “10 administrations, 28 sessions of Congress” to complete the interstate highway system.

3. There is high-speed rail. Cooper says they couldn’t find any high-speed rail. I guess he wasn’t looking in the Midwest, where officials just cut the ribbon on new service between Chicago and Kalamazoo. It’s the second fastest line in the country, nearing Acela speeds of 150 mph. Other trains in the Midwest can reach 110 mph in places.

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APTA: How to Talk to a Detractor of High-Speed Rail

Stop me if you’ve heard these before:

Stephen Harrod, Assistant Professor at the University of Dayton, quoted in a recent APTA report. Image: APTA

“Most Americans don’t use railroads, they use cars.”

“There’s no better example of excessive government spending than the $53 billion President Obama allocated for high-speed rail in his 2012 budget.”

“Would you pay $1,000 so that someone — probably not you — can ride high-speed trains 58 miles a year?”

“High-speed rail may be feasible in parts of Europe or Japan, where the population density is much higher, but without enough people packed into a given space, there will never be enough riders to repay the cost of building and maintaining a high-speed rail system.”

Critics of federal initiatives to promote high-speed rail have launched these attacks with great frequency over the past few years. Their targets have been projects in Florida, Wisconsin, California, or even federal regulators and Secretary Ray LaHood. But their primary intended audience was the American people, and, according to the American Public Transportation Association, there has been a “well-oiled campaign” (pun probably intended) to make sure their message was repeated, and loudly.

APTA is trying to unplug that propaganda machine with its new “Inventory of the Criticisms of High-Speed Rail With Suggested Responses and Counterpoints” [PDF]. It methodically lists no fewer than 37 specific objections to pursuing high-speed rail (grouped thematically into eight chapters) and exposes them for “lack of veracity and vision.” The four critiques quoted above (the first two from Diana Furchtgott-Roth in the Washington Examiner, the third from CATO’s Randall O’Toole and the last from Thomas Sowell in The Albany Herald), barely scratch the surface of the anti-HSR literature addressed by the report.

The aim of the report is to give HSR supporters a way to return fire when detractors say things like:

  • High-speed rail is too expensive and will never be profitable. APTA says the question of profit is “dangerously misleading and irrelevant” since “the economic value generated by passenger transportation historically is captured by the businesses served by the transportation network, not by the carriers.”
  • It doesn’t have broad enough support. On the contrary, says APTA: Even the Congressional leaders who have been the most critical of the Obama administration’s allocation of rail funds “have set about finding creative ways of financing the initiative in the hope of encouraging greater private-sector support and leadership.”
  • HSR might work elsewhere, but it won’t work in the U.S. Oh really? Sure, intercity passenger rail currently serves “the smallest share of riders among all modes of passenger transportation,” says APTA. But that’s changing. “In the Northeast Corridor, intercity trains enjoy a market share almost equal to the airlines, and nationally, ridership on Amtrak is at an all-time high.”

Many of the debunked criticisms point to some combination of unrecoverable cost and only marginal benefits, with the assumption that taxpayers will be on the hook for costs and that benefits will be confined to a select few. Not so: APTA cites ample evidence that high-speed passenger rail could be capable of operating profits and wide-ranging benefits.

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Mica Drops Amtrak Privatization Plan in Call for Northeast Corridor HSR

Speaking at a press conference today, Mica backed off plans to privatize Amtrak service in the Northeast. He was joined by New York State Sen. Malcolm Smith and Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler. Photo: Noah Kazis.

House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica backed off his controversial plan to privatize passenger rail on the Northeast Corridor today, announcing at a press conference that reforming Amtrak would suffice.

Mica stood with New York Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler at a conference held by the US High Speed Rail Association to announce further support for true high-speed rail along the Northeast Corridor. Mica has previously singled out the Boston-to-Washington corridor as the only proper location for high-speed rail (in contrast to the Obama Administration’s nationwide approach). Today, he urged that if any more high-speed rail funds are returned to the federal government, they be disbursed to the northeast. “Any further money for high-speed rail needs to go solely to the Northeast Corridor,” he said.

Mica said his goal was to see travel times as fast as in Amtrak’s ambitious proposal, but within a decade, instead of the 30-year timeline Amtrak set out.

Given Mica’s previous support for privatizing the Northeast Corridor, today’s announcement raises questions about how a revitalized push for high-speed rail along the route would be structured. Amtrak will be involved, Mica promised. “If there wasn’t an Amtrak, we’d have to create an Amtrak,” Mica said twice today. “It just needs reform.” He stated that he is no longer asking for the route to be taken away from Amtrak and that he is willing to compromise with other members of Congress and Amtrak leadership.

Even so, Mica still referred to Amtrak as a “Soviet-style train system.” It’s clear that ideological divisions linger.

Nadler, an opponent of privatization, added that there is now widespread agreement that private capital needs to be included in plans for the Northeast — Amtrak itself is seeking private investment — and also agreement that Amtrak will continue to serve the corridor. “If we all agree that Amtrak has to be the main vehicle,” said Nadler, “we have a lot of room to talk and to compromise.”

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How Will the House Answer the Senate’s Transportation Funding Bill?

The full Senate passed a major appropriations bill yesterday, including funding levels for transportation and housing. The Senate put the kibosh on Sen. Rand Paul’s attempt to strip bike/ped funding from the federal transportation program, as we reported yesterday. Here’s the lowdown on the bill as a whole.

In the current political environment, the Senate probably couldn't do much more than maintain current spending levels. But it's not enough to transform our transportation system. Photo: MTSNAC

The upper chamber maintained funding for several key livability programs, teeing up a fight with the GOP-led House over spending levels. A finished 2012 budget is already a month overdue and despite the Senate passage of a “minibus” (as opposed to an “omnibus”) spending bill yesterday, no one seems to expect a completed bill anytime soon.

The Senate bill maintains current overall spending levels, which, in the current environment, is a win for advocates of transportation investment, though given that the numbers don’t account for inflation, they essentially amount to a spending cut.

Either way, these figures don’t shift the status quo very much. While funding for TIGER and transit projects gets a modest boost, high-speed rail has been sharply reduced in this bill. And, since this appropriation comes in the absence of a new reauthorization of the federal transportation program, which could set new policies, these funds come without any guarantee that the money will be spent more wisely, in the pursuit of strategic goals and keeping systems in a state of good repair.

The bill includes:

  • $550 million for the TIGER program, a key element of the shift away from formula funding and toward merit-based allocations for the most innovative projects. The bill sets aside almost a quarter of that funding for projects in rural communities. This funding level would represent a $23 million jump over the actual enacted number for this year.
  • $41 billion – the same as this year – for the Federal-aid Highway program. Sen. Barbara Boxer was disappointed that the Senate did the math differently this year – rather than allocating $44 billion and then rescinding $3 billion of it, this bill makes the cut upfront. While that appears to be a more straightforward way to do it, some fear that it makes the baseline funding level look lower. That means that future funding will be determined based on $41 billion, not $44 billion.

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USDOT Tries to Resuscitate the HSR Dreams Congress Wants to Bury

High-speed rail has had a rough go of it lately. The House refused to give it a dime for next year, while the Senate only managed to allocate a fraction of what the president wanted. President Obama stuck some money back in via his jobs package, but it already seems clear that the package won’t pass as proposed, and we know high-speed rail is the always first for the chopping block.

Despite innumerable setbacks, progress is still being made on high-speed and intercity rail. Photo credit: Taiwan High-Speed Rail Corporation.

Meanwhile, if you look at USDOT, the well of rail funding just seems to keep on giving.

“They just keep cranking it out,” said Andy Kunz, president of the US High-Speed Rail Association. “Even when you think all the money’s all spent, they pull more money out of a hat.”

It didn’t just come out of a hat, of course. It came from the stimulus money, which is still giving, nearly three years later. Nearly the whole $8 billion allocation for high-speed rail in the stimulus has now been given out, thanks in part to USDOT’s energetic allocations these last few months – including re-allocating money returned by Florida, whose governor decided the state would be better off without high-speed rail.

Yonah Freemark writes in The Transport Politic that the Department of Transportation has been “pushing grants out of the federal government’s hands as quickly as possible so that they can not be rescinded.”

In September alone, the Federal Railroad Administration has approved hundreds of millions of dollars for intercity rail upgrades nationwide: $149 million for New York State, $116 million for New England, $49 million for Texas, $48 million for North Carolina and Virginia, $35 million for the Northeast Corridor, $31 million for Washington State, and $13 million for Oregon, among others. Earlier this summer, hundreds of millions of dollars were appropriated to California and the Northeast. Unless states turn back the money, unlikely considering that the projects have gotten so far and their pro-rail sponsors, these funds cannot be taken back by Congress.

It’s a good strategy. Big pots of money, lying unused, are tempting bait for budget-cutters in Congress — and right now there are a lot of people looking for potential cuts, from the super committee on down. But if there’s just loose change left over, it won’t make much of a dent and probably isn’t worth monkeying with — as much as Republicans would like the chance to say they’re cutting the deficit by cutting money from the high-speed rail “boondoggle.”

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Senate Saves a Sliver For High-Speed Rail

President Obama had sought $8 billion for high-speed rail in 2012. The House-passed budget had exactly zero. The Senate bill approved by the Transportation subcommittee Tuesday followed suit. But the full Appropriations Committee yesterday put $100 million back into next year’s budget for the president’s signature transportation initiative.

Senator Dick Durbin, co-chair of the High-Speed Rail Caucus, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ride a high-speed train in China. Photo from Reid’s Flickr photostream

That’s still starvation wages for the program, but it’s at least a placeholder that keeps it limping along. The move was spearheaded by four Democratic senators – Dick Durbin of Illinois, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Dianne Feinstein of California and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana — who introduced the successful amendment to reallocate some funds earmarked for highway and transit projects to high-speed rail.

“I offered this amendment because we can’t turn our backs on a project that will invest in the future and put Californians back to work,” Feinstein said in a statement.

“Every dollar we spend on rail produces $3 in economic output,” added Senator Durbin, a founding member of the Bi-Cameral High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Caucus. “Congress has maintained a commitment to high speed and intercity rail for over a decade. This amendment will continue that commitment.”

Highway funding in the Senate bill stays at FY2011 levels, but the chamber added another $358 million for the New Starts program for transit capital investments, previously funded at $8.3 billion. The House budget would reduce New Starts to $5.3 billion.

TIGER got a little bump too, with the Senate raising the allocation from $527 million to $550 million. Of that, $120 million is reserved for rural communities. The third round of TIGER grant applications is currently underway.

The Senate-passed budget keeps $90 million for the tri-agency Partnership for Sustainable Communities (down from $100 million in 2011), a victory for livability advocates and anyone who prefers federal collaboration and efficiency over stovepipes and silos.

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Senate Strips High-Speed Rail Funding

The Senate’s transportation budget proposal is still under wraps, but we’re getting some clues about what’s in it.

The president's vision for high-speed rail is getting cloudy. Image: White House

This morning, a subcommittee marked up the transportation and HUD appropriations bill, and the full committee will consider it tomorrow afternoon. Only after that will the draft bill be released.

During this morning’s subcommittee markup, though, a few senators divulged a few key points. For example, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) said he was ” discouraged by the elimination of high-speed rail grants” in the budget. “It’s a casualty of the cuts mandated in the debt-limit deal,” he said.

Despite his strong push last winter for high-speed rail service that would reach 80 percent of the U.S. population in 25 years, President Obama has been willing to sacrifice high-speed rail funding in tense budget fights with Republicans. The Senate seems to be following suit.

However, funding for Amtrak is untouched in the Senate budget bill, foreshadowing a pitched battle once the Senate and House have to reconcile their two budget bills. The House made devastating cuts to Amtrak in its version.

And Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) emphasized that TIGER grants are “an important part of the transportation equation” and indicated that they were still in the bill. Through other channels, we hear that TIGER is being funded at $550 million, which is slightly higher than the $527 million allocation it has now. The House 2012 budget proposal would have eliminated the program completely.

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House Votes to Strip High-Speed Rail Funding

This morning, the House voted 232-182 for an Energy and Water Appropriations bill that redirects $1 billion of high-speed rail money to flood relief for the Midwest.

Of course midwestern flood victims need relief. What does that have to do with high speed rail? Photo: NOAA

Never mind that that flood relief won’t arrive for many months, since this is a 2012 appropriations bill. The important thing here is to kill high-speed rail. (Why? I dunno. Because the president likes it?)

The high-speed rail money is still in federal hands thanks to Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s decision to send it back — another thing to thank Scott for.

Democrat Louise Slaughter of New York said the choice between flood relief and high-speed rail was a false one. “The attempt to rescind this money is nothing but an opportunistic attempt to gain politically from a human tragedy,” she said in a speech on the floor of the House. “The flooding that has occurred in our nation’s heartland is being used as an excuse to eliminate an investment in our transportation network and our future.”

She says New York stands to lose big if the funds are rescinded — about $450 million is on the line.

However, if USDOT acts fast to release the money, it will no longer be sitting in federal coffers, open to rescission when the House bill takes effect. Immediately after passage of the House bill, New Jersey senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, both Democrats, sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, asking him to expedite the release of $450 million in funding for Amtrak and NJ Transit improvements [PDF].

The House move is an assault on high-speed rail; no doubt. But it may not be a successful one. The Senate and White House are unlikely to go along with the cut, and given the gridlock in Congress over every spending bill that comes its way, a final vote on Appropriations is likely still a long way off.

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Northeast Corridor, the Midwest, and California Say “Thanks, Florida!”

Thanks to Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s head-smacker of a decision to refuse billions in federal high-speed rail funds, other parts of the country are getting a windfall. Even with $400 million of Florida’s money vanishing in the name of deficit reduction, the remaining $2 billion will go a long way in improving rail service in key areas around the country.

Amtrak's overhead wires will get an overhaul on the Northeast Corridor, thanks to federal funding just announced by the USDOT. Photo: NAMTI

House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL) will be happy to see that the biggest winner is the Northeast Corridor, which he considers to be the country’s best chance for successful high-speed rail. (He’s not the only one that thinks so, either.) The NEC is getting $795 million to increase speeds from 135 to 160 mph on critical segments, with more than half of that going to Amtrak to upgrade the signaling, tracks, and overhead wires to allow trains to run faster.

It’s a good test for Amtrak, which has been criticized by top political leaders recently as a “Soviet-style” rail service that isn’t competent to run an efficient, 21st century system. “It will show whether they’re capable of pulling off the next-gen vision proposal that they’ve put forward, which we’re very excited about, but it’s an extremely ambitious project,” said Petra Todorovich of America 2050. “We’ll be watching.”

Maryland, New York, and Rhode Island also get help with their sections of the Northeast Corridor. Todorovich says the grant to the NEC is “overdue” and she’s pleased with the recognition that the greatest need for rail improvement is concentrated in this corridor.

Detroit gets some good news with the announcement of a $404 million grant for 110-mph service to Chicago. For a depressed city like Detroit, connectivity to the region’s biggest economy can only be a good thing.

The “Buy American” lobby has reason to be happy, too, given the $336 million investment in U.S. manufacturing of locomotives and rail cars for California and the Midwest. And California got another $300 million to extend the current 110-mile segment another 20 miles through the Central Valley.

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