The High-Speed Rail Numbers Game: Is $13 Billion and 110 MPH Enough?

High-speed rail is one of the Obama administration’s most prized policy goals, with $13 billion getting earmarked in the coming year alone to help break ground on up to 11 proposed regional corridors. But what will the U.S. get for its money? A lively Senate hearing yesterday attempted to answer that question.

OB_DM760_TRAINS_NS_20090416170617.gifWill all 11 high-speed rail plans end up getting a piece of the action? (Photo: WSJ)

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), the co-chairman of Building America’s Future
and an unabashed high-speed rail evangelist, urged senators to shrug
off their post-bailout reluctance to approve large spending projects.
The White House’s $13 billion commitment, Rendell argued, is only a
down payment on a workable system.

"We can’t do
infrastructure on the cheap," Rendell said. "We have to find the political courage to find a way to pay for it."

Building
high-speed rail along the California coast, he added, is estimated to
cost as much as $40 billion. A northwestern network is projected to
cost $25 billion. Similar long-term funding problems, as it happens, are also haunting lawmakers who aim to overhaul federal transportation policy.

Rendell
suggested that a national infrastructure bank, independent of the
government, should be tapped to direct money to high-speed rail
proposals without political concerns influencing the process. "The
public wants that," he said. "The public
doesn’t want transportation dollars authorized through [the existing]
system."

That outcome is highly unlikely, however, given that the federal DOT already has released its guidelines
for an internal ranking of regional rail plans. And Federal Railroad
Administrator Joseph Szabo was on hand to defend the administration’s
methods.

"Our vision matches,
frankly, what they’ve done in Europe," Szabo told senators. Meanwhile,
Rendell kept imploring the lawmakers to reconsider the Obama
administration’s 110-mph ballpark for defining what constitutes
"high-speed".

With high-speed trains topping 200 mph in China
and 160 in France, the governor said, "we’re absolutely consigning
ourselves to second-class citizenship" by setting the benchmark at 110
mph.

Tom Skancke, a member of the transportation revenue panel that last year called for a major gas-tax hike to fund system-wide reform, echoed Rendell’s concerns with a call to publicly promote broad reform:

I
don’t think the nation as a whole has a plan for high-speed rail. …
The way we get there is, we have to sell the American public,
particularly on rail, as we get people out of their horse and buggy. It
is a cultural shift. We have to convince the American people that
high-speed rail is going to be predictable, going to be on time, going
to be affordable. … We know what the alignment should look like. I
just believe we need to step up and do it.

Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman also sought to bring Rendell and Skancke’s ambitions down to earth.

Citing the Acela train’s moderate progress in taking over market share in the northeast corridor,
Boardman said the U.S. is "not a train-riding culture" — an
eyebrow-raising admission from the chief of the nation’s largest
passenger rail service. "With high-speed rail, speed is not the issue,"
he said. "Convenience and trip times are."

Boardman also
did his part to guard Amtrak’s turf, suggesting that high-speed rail
planners "build a culture of riding the train" by ensuring that the
projects receiving funding are easily connectable to the network he
runs. "People want to be seamless," he said.

As for the
senators in attendance, most put in palpable plugs for their own
home-state proposals. Texan Kay Bailey Hutchison, the commerce
committee’s senior GOPer, was abuzz with the possibilities of the Texas
"T-Bone." Sen. Mark Udall (D-NM) spoke of a western corridor linking Albuquerque and Texas.

But
with Rendell warning that his fellow governors are equally convinced of
the merits of their own local rail plans, the task of separating the
wheat from the chaff was rarely discussed.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Is anyone seriously proposing a coastal HSR route in California? I’ve certainly seen misguided bloggers who believe Lompoc is a major city complaining that CAHSR won’t run through their towns, but I know of no actual plan to do so.

  • Jeffrey – to Ed Rendell, Fresno is on the West Coast….

  • patrick

    I think they are talking about upgrading the existing Amtrak coastal route to be express (about 100mph or so), rather than true HSR (150+ mph). It’s definitely not part of the recently approved California High Speed Rail Project, which will be going through the Central Valley.

  • @patrick – impossible. I’ve ridden that route from SLO to SJC. Too curvy to shoot for those speeds.

  • Jeffrey: this map depicts the coastal route because it is basically the old 90 mph designated corridor map, generated well before Obama or his HSR strategic plan. The National Rail Plan, which is due to be released this fall, will update the HSR corridors to be consistent with state planning.

  • I think it’s too much of an “all or nothing” approach. The way I see it, there should be 3 categories: Improved corridors (80-110mph), Moderate High Speed (110-150mph), and Ultra-High Speed (150+mph). It seems like a big jump is required to push trains above the 100-110mph level (with grade separations, etc.), and there are some corridors that could function very well if trains had their own set of tracks and consistently traveled 80-90mph (the Capitol Corridor, ACE, Colorado, Upstate NY, and many of the Southern routes come to mind). For these shorter corridors, some of which are marked for HSR and some that are not, as long as trains are frequent, reliable, and faster that driving, they could still capture a significant amount of riders. Really, we should be focusing on five main corridors for new moderate and ultra high speed–CA, Cascades, Texas, Florida, and Midwest-Chicago, as well as improvements to the existing Northeast corridor. Everything else would do fine as basic improved corridors for now.

  • lexslamman

    I think that there aren’t enough corridors – and there isn’t enough money. In addition to the 11 corridors given, I would say that Cincinnati-Atlanta, Indianapolis-Birmingham, Cincinnati-Cleveland, Cleveland-Pittsburgh, Tulsa-Memphis, Chicago-Toronto-Montreal, Los Angeles-Phoenix, Los Angeles-Las Vegas-Salt Lake City and Denver-Albuquerque should be seriously considered for their economic and linking benefits. First step, of course, will be to pass the Surface Transportation Act of 2009.

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