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, , , , , ,

Who’s afraid of rail investment? National politicians, apparently

Earlier today, Pat pointed out that Obama’s address about infrastructure and investment didn’t contain anything about rail or transit. It’s just the usual “roads and bridges.” It’s something we’ve often wondered about over the past few weeks: where’s the beef?

We here at TFA, along with practically every other blog about non-auto transportation, have been holding our breaths waiting for anything at all substantive about how the Obama administration is going to take advantage of this unique time to refocus attention on our overcrowded and underfunded transit systems. We latch onto the same non-committal comments from leaders. What’s the difference between Obama’s praise for a Midwest HSR network back in July and Biden’s comments at the National Governors Convention a few days ago? Only a few months and an election, really.

And we’ve seen all sorts of editorials recently about how excited people are about new rail investments. States and municipalities, hungry for transit dollars, have queued up in the breadlines with “ready to go” projects, but who’s to say everyone’s not getting all riled up about nothing? Do these local officials know something we don’t? My fear is that this new infrastructure investment opportunity will only benefit rail in the form of money trickling down from “highways and bridges.”

It seems to me that national politicians are afraid of proposing something so ambitious as a nationwide rail/transit investment. We’ve heard remarkably little about John Kerry’s HSR bill, and we’ve got our ears affixed firmly to the ground on these matters. The general public probably knows nothing about it. The problem is, in a country where everyone is forced to drive by necessity, that sort of spending can probably be easily characterized as liberal idealism, or just pork.

But in talking to people in both Tennessee and Minnesota, I’ve come to believe that people are fundamentally interested in passenger rail. They’d like to be able to get out of their cars every once in a while, but they just don’t think it’s convenient as it stands now. They’re also concerned about the massive monetary investment rail requires. But of course, we’re already spending $700 billion, why not put some of that towards a system that can improve quality of life, spur commercial development, and help our environment?

Barack Obama and Joe Biden are exactly the people who could raise these points, who can make a case for investing in HSR, Amtrak, and transit. And they seem to want to. You can feel it bubbling under their well-practiced political veneer. Maybe that’s enough. A more well rounded Secretary of Transportation and even a neutral administration would be a vast improvement. And if some of that “infrastructure” money is tagged for rail improvements, that’s good news even if it’s kept quiet. But much more progress could be made if our newly elected leaders would be bold enough to bring this topic to the foreground.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics, , , , ,

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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