Update: The Federal High-Speed Rail Program: A Post-Election Reality Check

Posted by Ken Orski on Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

Editor’s Note: This Brief has been extensively revised and updated to take account of late-breaking developments in this still unfolding story.

Innovation NewsBriefs
Vol. 21, No. 27 Rev.

In a November 1 column in the Washington Post, the respected economist Robert J. Samuelson attacked the Administration’s high-speed rail program as “wasteful spending masquerading as a respectable social cause.” The Administration’s championing and subsidies for high-speed rail projects, he wrote, is “a triumph of politically expedient fiction over logic and evidence.”

Wisconsin and Ohio No Longer in the Running

Samuelson’s blunt verdict is likely to resonate strongly in the deficit-conscious next Congress and among fiscally-strapped state governments. Recent events bear this out. Two newly elected Republican governors, Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio, had vowed to voters that they would kill the high-speed rail projects in their respective states and both of them rode on that pledge into office. Soon after the election, the $810 million HSR project in Wisconsin was “suspended” by order of the outgoing Gov. Jim Doyle. Subsequently, Doyle  announced he will leave the future of the project to his Republican successor. The governor-elect confirmed that his position remains unchanged. “I believe it is a grave mistake for the federal government to insist on building an unwanted passenger rail system at a time when our roads and bridges are literally crumbling,” Walker wrote to U.S. Transportation  Secretary Ray LaHood. The governor-elect  was responding to the Secretary who had  warned that the HSR grant money could not be spent on other projects.  Walker is expected to receive full backing from his solidly Republican state legislature.

Meanwhile, in Ohio, Gov.-elect Kasich, who received a similar letter from Secretary LaHood,  declared that the proposed $450 million high-speed rail line connecting Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, is “dead.”  He urged  outgoing Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland to immediately cancel all passenger rail contracts to save taxpayer money. Kasich, too, is expected to receive full support from his all-Republican state legislature.

The Florida HSR Project “Under a Cloud of Uncertainty”

As for Florida’ s Orlando-to-Tampa  HSR project,  its  future  has fallen “under a cloud of uncertainty,” in the words of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL).  The project received a setback when voters in Hilsborough County rejected a proposal to build a light rail system that would have served as a collection/distribution system for  passengers using a planned high-speed rail station in downtown Tampa. This has led Rep. John Mica (R-FL), the presumptive chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committeee in the 112th Congress,  to question the economic viability of the Tampa-Lakeland portion of the route and suggest a possibility of building the $2.6 billion high-speed line incrementally, with service between Orlando International Airport and Walt Disney World  as the first “operable segment.”

“The last thing we want is to build a dog that has to be highly subsidized by taxpayers,” Mica said in a telephone interview, echoing the concerns of Governors-elect Walker and Kasich that taxpayers be protected against having to bear the operating cost of new rail services. In a letter to Florida’s Secretary of Transportation, Stephanie Kopelousos, Mica expressed the hope that the risk of building the Orlando-to-Tampa segment could be minimized by attracting  “significant private sector interest and commitment” to assist in the development, financing, construction and operation of the rail line.

Reshaping the High-Speed Rail Program

In his Washington Post article, Robert Samuelson argued that we have become “prisoners of economic geography” of post World War II suburbanization. The resulting demography, he wrote, has made trip origins and destinations too dispersed to support intercity passenger rail service in most corridors on a cost-effective basis. This also seems to be Rep. Mica’s position.  “The Administration squandered the money,” Mica told Associated Press’ Joan Lowy,  “giving it to dozens of projects that were marginal at best to spend on slow-speed trains to nowhere.”  “We had unelected officials sitting behind closed doors making decisions without any hearings or without any elected officials being consulted,” he told Reuters in another post-election interview. “There was no rational explanation for the decisions.”   Mica said  he is a strong advocate of high-speed rail, “but it has to be where it makes sense.” Among his top legislative initiatives, he vowed in a post-election statement, will be to focus on “a better directed high-speed rail program”

As of the end of October, a total of $10.4 billion has been awarded to HSR projects in 23 states, according to the Federal Railroad Administration ($7.924 billion in the first round and $2.482 billion in the second round). This is only a fraction of the money needed to fully develop the selected high-speed rail corridors. To carry the work  forward will require continuing congressional appropriations over many years. Will future Congresses and  Administrations have the political will and desire to support the program? Only time will tell.

As for the immediate future, based on what we know of Mr. Mica’s thinking, he will want to focus  federal support  on a more limited number of corridors that offer a potential for true high speed rail service. This will almost certainly include more generous funding for the Northeast Corridor.  “Ignoring development of true high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor would be a monumental failure,” Mica wrote in an October 15, 2009 op-ed  in the congressional publication, The Hill. (“U.S. Musn’t Squander High-Speed Rail Funds”)

In the same article, Mr. Mica spelled out what he thinks should be the criteria for successful high-speed rail investment. ‘“In order to ensure sufficient demand,” he wrote, ” the corridors must link major metropolitan areas. To successfully compete against other modes of travel, the city pairs should be far enough apart to make driving unattractive, but close enough that flying does not have a clear advantage (somewhere between 100 and 500 miles apart). Good intermodal connections and efficient local transit system distribution from rail stations are a must. Other indicators of potentially successful corridors are high concentrations of business travel and congested highways and airports. Shifting some percentage of air passengers to rail would ease airport and airspace crowding and reduce air system delays…”

In Mr. Mica’s thinking, these conditions should generate sufficient ridership and revenue to attract private financing. “If we choose successful routes,” he wrote,  “insist on true high-speed rail service, and leverage the federal dollars with public-private partnerships while limiting the investment of our tax dollars, we can create a recipe for success.” If we do not meet these goals, he concluded, the Administration’s high-speed rail program will be “an expensive failure and we will have lost an important opportunity to launch a new era in transportation.”

Mr. Mica’s views differ substantially from the Administration’s scatter-shot approach that currently involves funding of well over 50 different high-speed rail projects in 23 states. The Congresman offers a vision that is more modest but  far more realistic  than the hyperbole  offered by the Administration.  What top federal transportation officials are promising is  a  “world-class network of high-speed corridors” connecting “80 percent of America in the next 25 years at a cost of $500 billion.”  This reminds me of  “Dreaming the Impossible Dream”   one railroad lobbyist told us. “The rhetoric sounds great but the vision is neither affordable nor pragmatically achievable.”

A Postcript on the ARC Tunnel

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s decision to cancel the proposed commuter trans-Hudson rail tunnel (ARC) offered another example of a resolve by the new wave of fiscally conservative governors to rein in spending on public works that, in their judgment, present an unacceptable level of risk and cost. While Christie’s decision was widely condemned as shortsighted by members of the infrastructure lobby, it was supported as fiscally prudent by a majority of New Jersey voters. (By a margin of 51 to 39 percent according to a Rutgers University poll).

It now appears that the  idea of a trans-Hudson tunnel may be revived in the context of Amtrak’s ambitious Northeast Corridor High-Speed Rail Plan that we wrote about in  previous Briefs (Nos. 22 and 25). Instead of simply serving as a commuter connection to Manhattan with a terminus adjoining (but not connected to) Pennsylvania Station, the revised plan would envision a dual purpose tunnel (also suggested in these pages)  that would serve Amtrak’s future high-speed service as well as New Jersey commuters.

Gov. Chris Christie was reported to be supportive of a joint Amtrak-NJ Transit tunnel venture when he met with reporters on October 27, but at this point the discussions are purely exploratory according to Christie’s office.

C. Kenneth Orski is a public policy consultant and former principal of the Urban Mobility Corporation. He has worked professionally in the field of transportation for over 30 years, in both the public and private sector. He is editor and publisher of Innovation NewsBriefs, now in its 21st year of publication.

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One Response to “Update: The Federal High-Speed Rail Program: A Post-Election Reality Check”

  1. Daniel says:

    Nothing against journalists, but Robert Samuelson is a journalist, not a “respected economist.” You may be confusing him with Nobel laureate economist Paul Samuelson. Would you expect a respected economist to issue such a “blunt verdict” on so little a basis?

    I wonder what the boosters for the trans-continental railroad or the American interstate system would have done if they assumed we were all “prisoners of economic geography” as it stood, that transportation investments must take existing land use patterns as a completely fixed external variable. Since we’ve already got all of these liveries everywhere, the only pragmatic thing to do is to keep sending more stagecoaches.

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