Thursday, February 03, 2011

Support for high-speed rail is collapsing

The curtain goes down on U.S. high speed rail
By Fred W. Frailey
Trains: the magazine of railroading
March, 2011

I'm going to go out on a limb---but not a long one---and declare an end to the era of high-speed trains outside the Northeast Corridor just two years after that era began. Yes, kaput. I am amazed how abruptly it ended, how enthusiasm and political backing for the $10.5 billion federal government program simply dissolved. Voters in the elections last November gave high speed rail no support at all. In two states, Wisconsin and Ohio, Republicans campaigning for governors vowed to stop the high-speed rail projects under way in their states and won.

But the collapse of support is not merely a partisan event. Bigger forces are in play. The execution of this idea was botched. Even if it hadn't been, there's no money. Huge federal deficits led to a voter backlash in 2010. Whether or not deficit spending helped the economy climb out of the Great Recession, people are alarmed. They see how excessive debt led Greece and Ireland to the brink of national bankruptcy. Could it happen here, they ask? From now on, politicians will feel the heat to lower budget deficits and improve the government's balance sheet.

There are two ways to kill high-speed rail. One is for Congress to take back all of the economic stimulus and high-speed rail grants that the Treasury has not yet dispersed---which is to say, practically all of the high-speed rail money. As of late 2010, a mere three projects had begun turning dirt to improve tracks. Those are in Illinois, Maine, and Vermont.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the new chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, wants to redirect unspent high-speed rail money into Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, where he feels it will do the most good. Other House Republican leaders want to return unspent money to the Treasury and not re-spend it.

Taking back appropriated funds is called a rescission, and it would drive a stake through the heart of high-speed rail, abruptly ending President Obama's initiative almost everywhere. But wouldn't the U.S. Senate, still controlled by Democrats, refuse to go along? I'm not sure. Bear in mind that in less than two years, 23 Senate seats now held by Democrats will be up for re-election, versus just 10 held by Republicans. In today's environment, fiscal austerity easily trumps passenger trains. If you doubt me, please note how few politicians are rallying behind high-speed rail, having seen its toxicity in last fall's elections. Imagine that funds for high speed rail become part of a big, omnibus package of rescissions. I could see the Senate going along. Then the onus would be on President Obama to affix his signature or be cast as a spendthrift before an angry electorate.

Maybe you don't think rescissions will succeed. OK, then high-speed rail will starve to death. High-speed rail will get no more than $1 billion from Congress in 2011, maybe less. Then what the feds haven't paid for, probably won't be paid for. California would be left to finance the unfunded $30 billion or so of its $43 billion-plus high-speed line from San Francisco to Southern California, which it obviously cannot; the state looks more and more like Greece. Also stranded would be Illinois, whose $4.4 billion project to run 16 110-mph trains a day between Chicago and St Louis is barely one-fourth funded. The votes not to spend more money on high-speed rail are there.

So any way you cut it, the high-speed show is over. The Onion satirizes [see video below] that Obama will soon unveil a plan for high-speed buses instead. Next high-speed rail will probably become fodder for Jay Leno's monologue. It's hard to recover from ridicule.

Many aspects of this saga were handled badly. Election results suggest that the public was never really won over. Plus, very few high-speed rail grants funded entire projects. Most paid for planning (such as state rail plans for Idaho and Colorado) and environmental studies, or at best the start of ambitious plans, such as in California and Illinois. By dividing the $10.5 billion pie into 107 slices, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood had something for almost everyone.

But frankly, there was little to show for it. Amtrak, which sorely needs money to improve the Northeast Corridor, wasn't even eligible to seek a high-speed rail grant.

The Federal Railroad Administration, the rail industry's safety cop, was unprepared for its new role as grant-giver. Enforcing safety, FRA adroitly plays the role of Big Foot. It tried to administer high-speed rail the same way, demanding that host railroads agree to onerous penalties for less-than-ideal train performance once improvements were in place; the railroads refused to go along. Agreements that could have been in place six and eight months ago are still being haggled over. Delay is murderous to public support.

And the cause wasn't helped when FRA gave the California High-Speed Rail Authority another $715 million in October on the condition it be used quickly to build in the Central Valley district of an endangered Democratic congressman (he won in a recount). The Sacramento Bee is calling this first, 54-mile segment of the 800-mile California high speed rail system "the railroad to nowhere."

I don't know what could reverse the course. Obama could try to put high-speed rail back on track, but he would need more support from Democratic Party office holders than I think is forthcoming. And don't look for railroads to rush to the defense of bullet trains. "We're neutral," a Class I executive tells me.

The one undertaking that could benefit from all this is the Northeast Corridor, which cries for capital dollars. Priority 1 should be constant-tension catenary wires above the rails to enable 150-mph (instead of 135) running south of New York And 1976-era Amfleet cars beg to be replaced.

But high-speed rail, R.I.P.
Thanks to High-Speed Rail Talk for the link.

video

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