Trains For America

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Kerry’s high-speed rail plan: The whole letter

Trains for America has obtained a copy of the letter that Sen. John Kerry sent to his senatorial colleagues about his high-speed rail initiative. The letter is dated July 23, 2008. It doesn’t give many more concrete details than what we got out of the snippet from yesterday’s post, but it’s interesting to see his rhetoric and the ways he plans to market this bill.

Dear Colleague:

With gas prices over $4 a gallon, I believe the sense of urgency has finally arrived, and the time is ripe to make a long-term investment in passenger rail – and make the United States a world leader again in high-speed rail. It would reduce the congestion on our highways and in the skies, reduce our use of foreign oil, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. High-speed rail would be the fastest and most reliable way to get from downtown to downtown for most city pairs between 100-500 miles apart, saving up to an hour per trip when compared to air and cutting trip time by more than 50 percent compared to driving. Perhaps most importantly, the bill would create tens of thousands of good new jobs and help stimulate the sluggish economy.

That’s why I am writing to ask for your support for the High-Speed Rail for America Act. The legislation creates the funding mechanism to create a world class high-speed rail system in the United States, and establishes an office of high-speed rail in the Federal Railroad Administration to ensure we have the leadership needed to keep this mission on track.

I know that you’ve heard the skeptics and cynics dismiss the idea of high-speed rail for decades. But recently, we have seen a shift in the way Americans are using transportation that indicates the time is ripe for a big change. The American Public Transportation Association recently reported that streetcars, trolleys and other light rail experienced a 10.3 percent increase in ridership for the first quarter of this year. It’s no secret why this is happening: According to a 2007 report by the Texas Transportation Institute, traffic congestion continues to worsen in cities across the country, creating a $78 billion drain on the U.S. economy with 4.2 billion lost man hours of work and 2.8 billion gallons of wasted fuel. In 2007, domestic flight delays cost the economy $41 billion and consumed about 740 million additional gallons of jet fuel. Passenger rail is an effective alternative to highway and air transportation. Americans want alternatives – and we can deliver them.

I believe the High Speed Rail for America Act helps to point the way forward. The bill provides a consistent source of funding – over the course of six years, this bill provides $200 million per year in grants, $3 billion in tax exempt bonds, $10 billion in tax credit bonds for high-speed intercity rail facilities, and $5.4 billion in tax credit bonds for rail infrastructure. The legislation is designed to fund high-speed passenger trains that can reach a speed of at least 150 mph as well as passenger trains for shorter distances which can reach a speed of 110 mph.

We have ignored our rail infrastructure for far too long and this bill is an important step towards creating a modern and reliable transportation network in the United States. If you would like to be an original cosponsor of this legislation or need additional information… [contact information omitted].

What I like about this letter is that it links the success  of intracity transit, particularly light rail, with intercity rail service. It’s certainly true that if we can get people from city to city without putting them in a car, local transit systems will reap the benefits (and don’t tell me that air travel fulfills this.. not when you need a car to get from the airport to the city). However, I feel that by quoting light rail usage statistics instead of equally impressive Amtrak gains, Kerry sidesteps what the role of our current passenger rail provider will be in this new system. It’s also possible that he just wants to avoid mentioning Amtrak because of potential negative connotations it might have for other lawmakers.

Although it’s not exactly clear, the letter seems to hint that this HSR infrastructure would be all new.. new tracks and possibly even new stations. If so, I question whether the funds Kerry is proposing would be adequate to cover the massive cost of such a plan.. especially for a nationwide implementation. The estimated cost of the California High Speed Rail project is $40 billion, after all. To be fair, California’s trains will travel much faster than the speeds mentioned in the letter. But considering the large scale of this legislation, it’s an issue that needs to be addressed.

I’m also surprised that the letter doesn’t harp on the potential environmental benefits of high-speed rail. Sure, it mentions the waste caused by delayed flights and congested automobile traffic, but references to rail’s inherent energy efficiency and electrification are nowhere to be found. This might indicate that these high-speed trains would be diesel powered. Do we want to be building a system that’s not future proof? Electrification should be a priority in these days of expensive fossil fuels.

Kerry’s letter indicates that this might be a promsing proposal. It’s still hard to say without some concrete details. We’ll be anxiously awaiting an official announcement and more details on the plan.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics, United States High Speed Rail, , , ,

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