Friday, February 18, 2011

Wired Magazine has it's say about the current state of HSR in Washington

Given the choices in this title for the article from Wired Magazine, I opt for "Quit."

What we'll do here is add some comments within the article text.

Time To Commit or Quit on High-Speed Rail
By Zach Rosenberg  February 18, 2011  |  9:00 am  |  Categories: Rail

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. [I can't see why this is not one of the most ambitious goals in the history of the US.  It will cost trillions to build.] 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. [The HSR cost realities keep this $53 billion from being "serious." "Serious" is at least a trillion dollars for a national HSR system.]

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.[Be that as it may, whatever consensus Zach Rosenberg has uncovered is quickly fading. The polarization is increasing rapidly.]

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 baling wire. The bill, if and when it’s ever passed, would have a shelf life of six years — which happens to be the time frame 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 rehabilitating 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. [There's a big difference between upgrading existing rail lines, and starting from ground zero to build the most complex rail system ever devised. The non-participation will be more widespread if we separate non-HSR upgrades from the HSR identified with California and Florida.  The difference is this: a state can take the federal dollars and spend them with little or no cost to the state.  But real HSR will cost the state dearly and the federal funding doesn't scratch the surface.]

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.  [Until and unless the Vice-President starts talking real HSR money,and that means many hundreds of billions of dollars, what's going on now is political hype.]

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, [That's up to $65 billion, and still climbing.] 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. [Amtrak says, $117 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.