Out of Control Policy Blog

What the Newest Round of Rail Grants Tells Us About High Speed Rail

C. Kenneth Orski has another useful analysis (Vol. 22, no. 15, May 11, 2011) of the most recent round of rail grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation. While the Obama Administration has effectively raised intercity passenger rail to a level equal to other modes, most notably automobile and conventional transit, the dream of a national network of high-speed trains is just that, a dream.

While Orksi's complete brief will be published at www.infrastructureUSA.org and www.innobriefs.com, he summarizes the current state of federal rail transportation in the following way: "In our [Orski's] view, several observations are warranted:

First, the Administration’s initiative took a major step in expanding the federal role in surface transportation by embracing intercity passenger rail as a major new candidate for federal capital assistance. Henceforth, highways and transit may have to compete with passenger rail for available federal surface transportation funds.

Second, by injecting $10 billion into the upgrading of existing intercity rail facilities, the Administration’s rail program will hopefully bring about incremental improvements in the average speed and reliability of Amtrak intercity passenger services in several key corridors. The money has not been totally wasted, as asserted by some critics, but the value and cost effectiveness of the $10 billion investment remains to be demonstrated. Growing Amtrak ridership would be one mark of success.

Third, the compelling need to reduce the budget deficit and rein in discretionary spending has dimmed the prospects for further congressional funding of intercity passenger rail. Fiscal 2011 funds for high-speed rail have been rescinded and funding for next year remains in doubt. The ambitious $53 billion high-speed rail plan proposed by the White House earlier this year has been given a quiet burial. Deprived of further federal aid, the momentum gained in the past two years will likely be lost.

Fourth, given Gov. Scott’s decision to cancel the Tampa-to-Orlando line and given the uncertain future of the troubled California’s high-speed rail project (read the highly critical report by California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, released on May 10, http://lao.ca.gov/reports/2011/trns/ high_speed_rail/ high_speed_rail_051011.aspx), the Administration can hardly claim to have launched an era of high-speed rail. The pledge to connect 80 percent of the nation to high speed rail in the next 25 years, repeated by Secretary Ray LaHood in a mantra-like fashion, is particularly misleading and has raised false expectations in the rail industry and among transportation reformers. A more tempered and realistic conclusion would be that the prospect for true high-speed rail in this country, with bullet trains running on their own dedicated tracks, still remains highly uncertain.

Lastly, what we have said in an earlier Brief bears repeating. The President’s initiative came at a most inopportune time, while the nation is recovering from a serious recession and desperately trying to reduce the federal budget deficit. However, the recession will eventually end, the economy will start growing again, and the deficit will hopefully come under control. At that more distant moment in time, perhaps toward the end of this decade, the nation might be able to resume its tradition of "bold endeavors" — ambitious programs of public infrastructure renewal. That might be an appropriate time to revive the idea of high-speed rail, at least in the context of the densely populated Northeast Corridor where road and air traffic congestion will soon be reaching levels that threaten its continued growth and productivity. For now,  prudence, good sense and the nation’s well-being require that the federal government  and its surface transportation program live within their means.

Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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