Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Congressional update: House approves $4 billion for HSR

Pat blogged yesterday about Iowa Congressman Tom Latham’s amendment to strip down the high-speed rail funding in the housing and transportation bill to Obama’s original $1 billion rather than the $4 billion that was added in committee. It wasn’t looking good for a while, with HSR advocacy organizations such as the Midwest HSRA and Virginians High-Speed Rail putting out action alerts to their members. Fortunately, thanks to quick responses from those concerned about our nation’s rail infrastructure (or perhaps just the general spirit of the times), the amendment easily failed 136-284.

As The Transport Politic points out, this is a good indicator of the surprisingly high amount of bipartisan support high-speed rail seems to enjoy in the legislature. Maybe this is due to the wide number of states now vying for those funds, or perhaps, pathetically, it’s just the fact that there was no mention of “Amtrak” in the proposal.

If this language makes it through the Senate, that’s a 1/2 increase of the HSR money already allocated in the stimulus package. This runs together with Pat’s anniversary post the other day. If you had told me that the federal government approve $12 billion for high-speed rail with support from a number of likely and unlikely states back when I started in Spring 2008, I wouldn’t have believed you.

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

Obama, now as president, speaks up for high-speed rail

The latest hot gossip in the smart transportation blogs today: Obama’s comments yesterday in Ft. Myers, FL about sprawl, smart growth, and, critically, high-speed rail. Here’s the key quote from Transportation for America, which has the transcript:

It’s imagining new transportation systems. I’d like to see high speed rail where it can be constructed. I would like for us to invest in mass transit because potentially that’s energy efficient. And I think people are a lot more open now to thinking regionally…

The days where we’re just building sprawl forever, those days are over. I think that Republicans, Democrats, everybody… recognizes that’s not a smart way to design communities. So we should be using this money to help spur this sort of innovative thinking when it comes to transportation.

That will make a big difference.

It’s nothing we didn’t hear quite often during the election[1, 2, 3], but it means something more when he’s actually in power. Also, his tying together of intercity rail, transit, and smart growth shows that he’s got someone on his team who has the right idea about 21st century transportation. The comments are reassuring after a lack of administration action making rail a priority in the stimulus, but we’ve still yet to see him take any real action in favor of Amtrak or HSR as president. This year should give him plenty of opportunities, however, and we’ll be keeping a close eye on each one.

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

Texas advocates renew push for high-speed rail

I’ve noticed a lot of buzz about the Texas “T-Bone” HSR plan lately, both in the news outlets and on visits to this blog. Looks like groups such as Texas Rail Advocates and The Texas High-Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation are making a publicity push in light of what will hopefully be a more friendly federal environment. There’s discussion of both high-speed-lite 110mph trains and “bullet train” HSR. Looks like it’s catching some attention. Gov. Rick Perry seems to be open to the idea, and there’s some tangible legislation that could help get the ball rolling. From the Houston Chronicle:

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, Texas Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee chairman, already has filed a proposed constitutional amendment to allow high-speed rail facilities to be exempt from property taxes. It would require a two-thirds vote of lawmakers and voter approval.

Carona said his proposed amendment has a good chance of passing: “I think high speed rail is a near-term reality for this state.”

But why do advocates think that this can succeed now when a similar proposal was squashed by the airlines in the 1990’s? From the Star-Telegram:

But Southwest and Fort Worth-based American Airlines now see the benefit of high-speed rail, Dallas transportation consultant David Dean said.

“The old, post-World War II model of sending planes 250, 300 miles to collect passengers and bring them to central hubs . . . is no longer feasible,” Dean said. “The short-haul flights are dropping like flies in the United States. They’re depending upon passengers to find their own way to the airport. If you have high-speed rail . . . bringing potentially 16 million passengers to your central airports, it becomes a collection system for them. If the rail comes to the airport, they will support it because it becomes a matter of convenience.”

Right now it looks like this is mostly talk, but talk is precisely what we need to get started with. With the airlines declining and a federal administration that is, at least on paper, amenable to infrastructure projects and a greener economy, states need to start developing their proposals right now.

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

The wrong place to put high-speed rail

airports

I drew it out for everyone.

Conde Nast’s Joe Brancatelli has a few suggestions to Obama about transportation. One of them involves building a high-speed rail network (yep), but he gets something wrong.

What the nation needs is a titanic investment in high-speed, short-haul rail service between heavily populated major cities. What we need is inter-modal solutions that create express rail links between major airports, nearby suburbs and city centers. Recreating the 20th Century Limited between New York and Chicago isn’t the answer. Creating a 21st Century Amtrak that links Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to tens of millions of travelers in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Indiana is.

Okay, I realize that lately some airlines in Europe have actually been supporting HSR and even getting into the biz themselves, like Air France. This is great. What we can’t do, however, is make the mistake of seeing high-speed rail as merely some replacement for short-haul connection flights. Trains [probably] won’t ever be as fast as planes, so it’s critical that we don’t remove from them one of their best advantages over flying: being able to leave and arrive right from the city.

For one thing, this makes things easier for travelers. Airports are generally located in the far-flung fringes of an urban area. The trip to and from the airport after the plane has landed can be long, expensive, and cumbersome for travelers. This is true for drivers and doubly true for users of mass transit. If you’re lucky, the city has a rail transit connection to its airport. If you’re not, get ready to put up with a more confusing bus ride or a pricey cab fare. Even if there is a connection, like the CTA’s Blue Line at O’Hare, those trains are usually neither suited for luggage nor the long suburban distances. It’s much more practical to have our trains arriving and leaving in the cities themselves, where they are well served by local transportation and close to urban amenities and destinations. The UK is looking at having Heathrow be the hub for a national HSR scheme, but Heathrow already has an express rail connection to London, and as part of the plan will be getting an even faster one. I don’t envision the political will ever materializing for something like that in the United States. Transit connections will always be “good enough.”

This also dips into the realm of urban policy. Focusing our tax money on airports will encourage more development in those far-flung suburbs. Conference centers and hotels will thrive out there while struggling in the cities. More subsidized sprawl is the least thing we need when we should be weaning ourselves off of oil and heading towards a greener economy. Missing the forest for the trees is part of what got us into our current transportation mess. We can’t afford to let that happen again.

And the right-of-ways for bringing trains into the city have existed for a long time. Improving these existing links and giving Amtrak the improved capacity is desperately needs should be our first priority. Refocusing our rail system onto the airports is a foolhardy waste of money. A better suggestion for Obama would be to get to work on improving the extensive infrastructure we already have and making it look at least a little bit like it might be the rail system of a first-world country. The Midwest HSR project would, as always, be a very very good place to start.

Filed under: Travel Woes, United States High Speed Rail, , , ,

HSR for Minneapolis/Duluth

According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune among other MN sources, county and city officials along the Burlington North Santa Fe Railway line from Minneapolis to Duluth are optimistic about a planned high-speed line between the cities. First off, it’s worth noting that this route would be only moderate HSR (we need to standardize these terms, don’t we?): 110mph to 150mph. It’s enough to make it competitive with driving at least. The Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance has been campaigning hard for the line in the past year, and it’s hoping that the $450 million cost of upgrading the line to accommodate passenger rail will largely get picked up by the feds:

The cost of the proposed passenger rail line from Minneapolis to Duluth will likely exceed a half billion dollars — $100 million more than was projected earlier this year — with no guarantee that federal funding will cover 80 percent of the project, as local officials hope.

That $450 million estimate includes equipment and the costs of safety and rail improvements, Manzoline said. But it does not include maintenance fees to Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which owns the desired track, or operating costs, he said. Those costs are likely to run into the tens of millions.

But according to a Minnesota Public Radio article in February, the Alliance aims to have the line be self sustaining because of its high speeds, stop near the Grand Casino in Hinckley, and connection to Amtrak service to Chicago and the West Coast.

As a MN resident (ish), I’d love to see more passenger rail in the state, and it would be great if the Alliance could pull this off. It would be a great compliment to the coming high-speed improvements to the Twin Cities – Chicago route as part of the Midwest HSR plan. But the state is being extremely tight with transportation money in light of a budget shortfall and the cost of repairing bridges after the 35W collapse. And as we’ve all seen, the amount of money the federal government is going to allocate for rail improvements is pretty ambiguous at the moment. And eight trains a day? The Empire Builder only stops in the Twin Cities twice per day.

I’d love for someone close to or familiar with the project address my doubts. North/south passenger rail would be a wonderful thing for Minnesota.

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

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, , , , , ,

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