Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Taking a serious look at the Kerry HSR bill

Via the California High Speed Rail Blog comes this excellent analysis of John Kerry’s HSR bill from Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic. If you remember, we were doing some investigating on this bill in September and it was officially announced in November.

He points out, interestingly, that the bill establishes an Office of High-Speed Passenger Rail within the Federal Railroad Administration. He’s hoping that such a move will give the FRA a new focus in passenger rail, particularly with regard to regulations requiring passenger trains to be a certain weight, limiting speed:

If passed, the bill would create an “Office of High-Speed Passenger Rail” (we’ll call it OHSR here) which would operate within the Federal Railroad Administration. This would dramatically alter the priorities of the FRA, whose principal focus in recent years has been on improving the freight rail system in the United States. One wonders if FRA’s “safety” precautions, which require passenger rail trains in the United States to be far heavier than similar vehicles in the rest of the world, will be slowly phased out as the FRA’s mission is repositioned towards high-speed rail. Such a change, which would mean great monetary savings for rail operators around the nation in equipment purchases, might be necessary if a true HSR program is to be implemented.

Here’s a breakdown of the money over the bill’s five-year lifespan, which comes to about $5 billion every year:

In a five-year period, the bill would authorize the following:

  • $8 billion in tax-exempt bonds to qualified high-speed rail programs
  • $10 billion in tax-credit bonds to “super high-speed” rail programs (we’ll get to this in a minute)
  • $5.4 billion in tax-credit bonds to other high-speed rail prgrams

But rather than creating a top-down federal network and policy, like the Interstate Highway System, the money would be distributed to states and organizations applying for project funding. While not necessarily good news, it’s not terrible news either. Devolution has long been the standard with new rail projects, but that’s mostly because the federal government never cared enough to get too involved. But this means that well-organized projects such as the Midwest HSR plan and California High Speed Rail will be able to move in on much needed federal funds. Other states that don’t have their act together will probably be left out.

Also, federal funds allotted to California will probably be insufficient for the project’s need unless the bill is renewed in 2014. The CAHSR blog remains cautiously optimistic about this:

Of course we’ll likely be well into the construction phase by that point, and it’s harder to kill a spending program once it’s in place than to kill it at the proposal stage. States that have used the OHSR funds to start HSR projects will not look kindly on Congress or the White House refusing to renew their funding.

At any rate, Kerry’s bill is looking good. A nationwide standard for high-speed rail might be a better way to go, but that’s politically more difficult. It’s hard to disagree with this massive step in the right direction, but we’ll see how things play out for this plan on Capitol Hill. Also, be sure to check out the whole analysis over at The Transport Politic if you have the time. Well worth the read.

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

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, , , ,

Developing: A big HSR bill from John Kerry?

The Atlanta Journal Constitution has an interview with Senator Jonny Isakson (R-GA)  about new legislation sponsored by Senator John Kerry called the “High Speed Rail for America Act.” Apparently Kerry has sent a letter to his congressional colleauges about the proposal, which the AJC quotes:

Kerry’s office wouldn’t answer questions about the measure, dubbed the High Speed Rail for America Act, but a letter he sent to colleagues talks big: “$200 million per year in grants, $8 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.”

I can’t find much more information about the proposed legislation, but I’ll be working to get the full text of the letter tomorrow. A high-speed rail initiative in this country would be great if executed well, but we don’t want any nascent project to siphon funds and support away from our already functioning Amtrak system.

I won’t be passing judgement until we get more details.

Edit after some more thinking: From the article I get the impression that the bill might involve all new track.. but I’m not sure. The way Isakson talks seems to point to a European-style system where a public entity owns the infrastructure, which private-ish operators then rent. Again, hard to make any assessments until we get some more details.

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

John Kerry says: Fix Acela speeds

It’s something of an open secret that Amtrak’s Acela high-speed service, though faster than a regular NEC train, can’t hold a candle to a true high-speed line. The reason? It runs on the same tracks that have always been there, which are old, curvy, and riddled with bridges and tunnels that were never designed to withstand Acela’s theoretical 150 mph top speed.

John Kerry has told the Boston Globe that he wants to fix all that:

“Are you kidding? That train can go 150 miles an hour, (but) it goes that for, what, a couple of miles?” Kerry scoffed. “I want America to have a first-rate high-speed rail system. A high-speed rail that really lives up to the name and gets people there in the time that we ought to be aiming for.”

Kerry plans to file in two weeks a $1 billion bill that will target out-of-date bridges, tunnels and tracks that prevent the train from hitting its 150-mile-per-hour maximum and getting commuters to their destinations faster.

A billion dollars is nothing to sneeze at, but we have to consider that Kerry is going up for reelection soon. Is that enough money to make a difference? Or is he just trying to wow rail-riding constituents with his outrage over America’s one so-called high-speed train?

While Amtrak took in more than $1.4 billion in federal funds last year [TFA note: is this really necessary?], the curvature of the railroad tracks continues to be the main reason for the Acela’s low speed in the northeast, said Amtrak spokeswoman Karina Romero.

Straightening the tracks along the heavily developed eastern rail would trigger many eminent domain takings, however.

“The price would probably be exorbitant,” Romero said about the number of land takings.

Modernizing bridges and other infrastructure may increase the speed by 10 to 15 miles an hour, said Romero, but probably still would not bring the line to top speed, despite Kerry’s remarks.

A 10-15 mph increase isn’t great, but it’s certainly an improvement. What do you NEC people think? Is it worth it? Is Kerry just being a politician? I glanced at the Boston Globe comments, which is basically a large pool of vitriol against Kerry peppered with an occasional “but the Acela does need to go faster…” here and there. If even making the route workable for Acela is such a challenge, will true HSR ever be acheivable along the corridor? HR 6003 will open up the door to private offers for a high-speed line along the route… that’s not looking very feasible at the moment.

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

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