Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Washington rail budget slashing fight is on

While there's no mention of high-speed rail in this article, it does set the context for what high-speed rail is in for in Washington.  Needless to say, the states, including California, have long shopping lists of projects they want the federal government to fund.  Some are legitimate.  But, the problem is that all federal funding, for all projects, is never enough to cover the cost of any one of the projects.  It's always fractional and therefore the cost burden comes back to who?  Us, in the state. 

The Obama budget calls for over three billion dollars in new rail lines.  That includes urban and regional rail, commuter rail and, in our case, the SF subway, and BART.  Sacramento anticipates $50 million for light rail. The Republicans want to cut al this.  The state Democrats say, we need more, not less.

Well, I agree. We should develop their urban and regional rail and transit capacity further. And the funding is there.  Where?

You know.  The totally unnecessary high-speed rail budget, which contains $53 billion over the next six years.  Were Obama and the DOT to re-direct at least some of these funds, there would be more difficulty in objecting to them since their function is far less challenged and more plausible. It's in those urban and regional environments that traffic gridlock exists and people do need to get around, to and from work.  That makes much more sense than inter-city luxury trains. 

Those governors that are refusing federal funds for HSR realize the cost-burden to their states.  We need to be smart about this.  The gift from Washington is the gift that keeps on taking.

Republicans Push for Cutting Funds for New Rail Lines
San Jose Mercury News

By Gary Richards, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.

Feb. 15--One day after the Federal Transit Administration announced it would give the BART extension to San Jose $130 million as a down payment on $900 million in aid from Washington, political reality set in.

The Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee now recommends slashing funds to new rail lines by 22 percent -- cuts that could slow the flow of money for BART and 27 other projects across the country.

"Obviously, any of their cuts would set us backwards rather than going forward," FTA administrator Peter Rogoff said Tuesday from Washington, D.C. "We want to work with the House Republicans on deficit reduction, but we are heading in opposite directions on infrastructure and investment."

President Barack Obama's budget calls for $3.2 billion for new rail lines across the country, up from $2 billion this year. San Francisco's Central Subway line would get $200 million, with Sacramento in line for $50 million for light rail.

The Republican budget proposal set off a flurry of angry responses Tuesday. Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose, called it "another example of mindless budget slashing. We can't win the future if we don't have a 21st-century transportation infrastructure to take us there."

William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, said, "None of these cuts makes sense."

Added Randy Rentschler of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in Oakland, which allocates federal and state money to the nine counties in the region: "It is areas such as the Bay Area who need a balanced transportation system and who would be affected most by this proposal. We need more, not less funding."

Easing the potential pain for transit agencies is the freeing up of $350 million in federal aid after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie blocked construction of a commuter rail tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan. This would have been one of the largest transit projects in the country, and nearly $9 billion of the $12.7 billion construction costs had been covered.

But Christie canceled the project because it would have meant borrowing funds or raising the gas tax to cover the difference -- moves he refused to make.

Michael Burns, the general manager of the Valley Transportation Authority that will build the BART extension, took heart, saying that even with the Republican budget proposal, nearly 80 percent of the new train program would be funded.

"This demonstrates that the new starts program has solid bipartisan support," Burns said.
But issues remain, from opposition to increasing spending to questions about where Obama's ambitious transportation budget would get more revenue.

It calls for spending $556 billion over the next six years. But only $230 billion would be covered by gas tax revenues over that period, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

"How does the president propose to bridge the $326 billion funding shortfall?" asked Ken Orski, editor and publisher of a widely read transportation newsletter and the associate administrator of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration under Presidents Nixon and Ford.

Last fall a panel of 80 transportation experts that included Norm Mineta, the director of transportation under President George W. Bush and a former congressman from San Jose, estimated that an additional $134 billion to $262 billion must be spent per year through 2035 to rebuild and improve the nation's transportation infrastructure.

Locally, said Honda, that must mean delivering on the promise of federal money for BART.

"The long-awaited BART to Silicon Valley project is too important for businesses and jobs in our communities to be put in danger by political gimmicks," Honda said, "and I will fight tooth and nail to make sure it gets the federal funds that it deserves."

Contact Gary Richards at or at 408-920-5335.