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Posts from the "High Speed Rail" Category

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Report: Get Out of the Highway-Obsessed Eisenhower Era

Building America's Future's words, not ours! Source: BAF, via USDOT.

Building America’s Future, led by former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, has added their voice to the chorus calling for greater investment in U.S. infrastructure, lest the country fall behind its global competitors. In a new report, Falling Apart and Falling Behind, BAF recommends more focus on mass transit, a switch away from formula funding without performance requirements, and more emphasis on metropolitan areas.

A couple weeks ago, we took some heat from some of you, dear readers, about our coverage of a somewhat similar report from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Indeed, that report called for more infrastructure spending, but without specific recommendations on how to build a bettertransportation system. Charles Marohn at Strong Towns wrote a scathing critique of the report, questioning the urgent need to “spend trillions to save seconds” of commute time – especially the assertion that the U.S. should spend $2.2 trillion in order to save $1.0 trillion. Marohn went on to say:

At Strong Towns, we want our infrastructure maintained. In fact, it’s the common denominator of a Strong Town. But the reason why we can’t maintain our infrastructure is not because we lack the money or are afraid to spend it. It is because the systems we have built and the decisions we’ve made on what is a good investment are based on the kind of ridiculous math you see reflected in this ASCE report. We spend a billion here and a billion there and we get nothing but a couple minutes shaved off of our commutes, which just means we can build more roads and live further away from where we work. (Or, as we call that here in America: growth.)

Well put. And we’re glad to see that today’s contribution to the infrastructure debate goes deeper than the ASCE report in recommending concrete ways to build smarter, not just more.

Building America’s Future urges more spending, but says that to do it right, funding priorities should adhere to national strategies. And they’re not shy about spelling out what those are: more economic growth and mobility, less congestion and pollution. “Largely run on gasoline, our transportation system is environmentally, politically, and economically unsustainable,” they write.

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Mica and Rail Supporters Meet Halfway

Members of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association on Capitol Hill with Rep. John Mica (center) on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of USHSR.

At a meeting with members of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association Tuesday, House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica softened his stance somewhat on his plan to privatize the Northeast Corridor.

He acknowledged that the proposal is “controversial” and said that was why he framed it in a separate bill, apart from the rest of the reauthorization. He said he’s “heard the concerns” about the plan. A member of his staff said that the original plan was being portrayed as transferring Amtrak’s assets away from it, while leaving Amtrak holding the bag on the debt. “Which, when you put it that way, does sound sort of unfair,” the staffer said, indicating that issues like those are being worked out.

Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association, said he was glad to see Mica striking a more cooperative tone. “His initial bill and his initial hearing was a little bit ‘This is it; take it or leave it’,” Kunz said. “Now he’s recognizing there needs to be a bit more cooperative action.”

The committee isn’t easing up on everything, though. The staffer also stated that the committee was giving inter-city and passenger rail “a temporary rest” while it focuses exclusively on high-speed rail. “It does not serve the two programs well to be ‘smooshed,’ or put together and consolidated the way they have been and then have most of the projects that receive funding not be high-speed rail in any way, shape, or form.”

In response to the Congressional Research Service’s conclusion that the rail privatization scheme could run into constitutional problems, Mica’s staffer was dismissive, saying CRS merely warned that some courts could find it to be a violation, and they should be careful. (Sounds like a finding of unconstitutionality to me.)

As he often does, Mica spoke of his high-speed rail plans as a way to rescue high-speed rail from the Obama administration’s mismanagement and bungling. He often jokes about the “gift that keeps on giving”: the original $8 billion allocated for high-speed rail, some of which has been returned by gun-shy states and re-allocated.

Mica asserted that the involvement of the private sector is “non-negotiable” – which Amtrak itself would agree with, as it’s already seeking private sector partners. Mica gave Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman credit for being on board. “Boardman sees that you cannot [upgrade the NEC to high speeds] – at least in his lifetime – under the current proposal,” Mica said. He also said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is “willing to negotiate.” But he cast blame on Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), who he said are willing to give “none of the pie” to private investors.

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Onion: Al-Qaeda Would Reduce U.S. Infrastructure to Rubble But It’s Too Late

You can always count on The Onion to call attention to the sorry state we’re in. Today’s story: “Al-Qaeda Claims U.S. Mass Transportation Infrastructure Must Drastically Improve Before Any Terrorist Attacks.”

Photo: The Onion

According to The Onion, al- Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has demanded that the U.S. make significant repairs and upgrades to its roads, bridges, and railways before al-Qaeda would even consider destroying them with terrorist attacks.

Reading from a prepared statement, al-Zawahiri blasted the U.S. government for its lack of foresight and admonished its leaders for failing to provide Americans with efficient and reliable modes of public transport to reduce traffic congestion, lower carbon emissions, improve air quality, and supply suitable targets for terrorists.

“The al-Qaeda network is fully prepared to continue the jihad against the American infidels by launching deadly attacks, but your outdated and rusting transportation infrastructure needs to be completely overhauled for those strikes even to be noticed,” al-Zawahiri said. “We want to turn your bridges into rubble, but if we claimed credit for making them collapse, nobody would ever believe us.”

They even got in a dig about the nation’s paralysis around building high-speed rail.
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California: Ground Zero in the High Speed Rail Wars

Is Bakersfield-to-Fresno a good start for HSR in California? Photo: Neighborhoodr

On Thursday, the California High Speed Rail Authority accepted the resignation of Ogilvy Public Relations. The PR firm was about to get axed over accusations that it billed excessively while doing little to counter a tide of anti-rail propaganda.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, at the Rosemead Community Recreation Center, east of Los Angeles, the Authority displayed maps and renderings of the rail system it’s designing to link California’s major cities. Up and down the state, in fact, the Authority is holding regular outreach meetings as it draws up detailed blueprints, including a planned initial segment from Bakersfield to north of Fresno, through the state’s agricultural Central Valley. “We hope to start construction in the fall of 2012,” said Project Manager Maj. Gen. Hans Van Winkle at a high-speed rail conference in downtown Los Angeles. So in theory, everything’s on schedule and there’s $6.3 billion in state bonds and federal funds ready to go.

The Ogilvy firing, however, was just the latest indication of the vicious brawl going on between HSR opponents and supporters nationally and in Sacramento. With Florida’s decision to abandon its project, California is now the only state with a dedicated HSR system in advanced planning. That’s put California in the cross-hairs of anti-rail politicians and petroleum-and-aviation-industry-backed groups such as the Reason Foundation.

The battled heated up May 10, when California’s Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) came out with a report attacking the decision to build the first leg in the Central Valley. Engineers prefer this long, straight section because it minimizes construction challenges. Nevertheless, the report set off a flurry of anti-rail editorials in papers ranging from the Sacramento Bee to the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. Many echoed the Reason Foundation’s statements that the Central California segment will be a “train to nowhere.”

“This initial money, if we spent it instead in Southern California…we could use it for existing commuter rail and high-speed rail,” said Southern California State Senator Alan Lowenthal.

In 2008, voters in California approved Proposition 1A, which authorized the state to issue $10 billion in bonds to begin funding a dedicated, 220-mph high-speed line from Los Angeles to San Francisco. However, it stipulated the dollars can’t be spent unless they’re matched — in this case by the Feds.

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High-Speed Rail Funds Get Slashed in Detailed Budget Plan

Just when we thought transportation had gotten off relatively easy in the shutdown-aversion budget deal:

House Appropriations Chair Hal Rogers (R-KY). Image: Mindfully

The House Appropriations Committee has released details [PDF] on the budget agreement between the two houses, including more information on the agreed-to $38.5 billion in cuts. Where we’d heard before that high-speed rail was getting a $1.5 billion haircut, down to the $1 billion for 2011 that President Obama had originally requested, it turns out now that that last billion dollars is being cut too. And to add insult to injury, they’re also zeroing out $400 million of rejected Florida rail funds (technically cutting funding from 2010), bringing the grand total of HSR cuts to $2.9 billion.

This is a big blow to one of the president’s signature projects, with which he was planning on “winning the future.” It further clouds the outlook for his $53 billion proposal for high-speed rail over the next six years, starting in 2012. These budget cuts, of course, are for FY2011, before the $53 billion was to start, but please believe the Republicans aren’t looking for a massive increase in rail money for next year either.

TIGER, which had appeared to be safe, is getting $72 million cut from its $600 million budget, and the Appropriations Committee eliminated all funding for “planning, preparation or design” of projects eligible for TIGER funding. For now, the Partnership for Sustainable Communities appears to be safe.

Meanwhile, New Starts transit funding, already slated for $280 million in cuts, is now getting $502 million cut from its $2 billion budget, with another $128 million coming out of Amtrak grants for capital improvements and debt service. They’ve also cut $3.1 billion in highway contract authority that had not been obligated, as opposed to the $2.5 billion cut announced Friday night.

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Who Wants Florida’s $2.4 Billion in High-Speed Rail Funds?

Gov. Rick Scott got to say no, yet again, to Florida’s dreams of high-speed rail.

The attorney for the state senators argued in Florida's Supreme Court to save high-speed rail funding.

Florida’s Supreme Court ruled this morning that Gov. Scott doesn’t have to accept federal money to build a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando. Two state senators had filed a lawsuit, claiming Scott had “overstepped his authority” by turning down the money, since the state legislature had voted to authorize the project. (Check out Transportation Nation’s chronology of events.)

Scott put the final nail in the coffin this morning when he formally told Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, for the last time, he was rejecting the federal funds for the project. LaHood had been trying for weeks to assuage Scott’s concerns by assuring him that Florida would not be held responsible for cost overruns and that private investors would assume most of the risk.

A USDOT spokesperson said the department had “addressed every legitimate concern Governor Scott has raised” and “repeatedly and clearly told Governor Scott and his staff that Florida would not bear financial or legal liabilities for the project.” Florida Senator Bill Nelson and Rep. John Mica begged him to change his mind. Still, no dice.

This morning, after talking to Scott, LaHood issued a statement saying, “The Obama Administration’s bold high-speed rail plan will not only create jobs and reinvigorate our manufacturing sector in the near term, it is a crucial and strategic investment in America’s future prosperity. I know that states across America are enthusiastic about receiving additional support to help bring America’s high-speed rail network to life and deliver all its economic benefits to their citizens.”

He’s right about that – politicians from around the country – and especially the Northeast – have been lining up to ask for Florida’s hand-me-downs.

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Ohio, Wisc. Rail Money to be Transferred to 13 Other States

Ohio’s and Wisconsin’s loss will be 13 other states’ gain.

U.S. Department of Transportation announced this afternoon that nearly $1.2 billion in passenger rail money will be withdrawn from the states of Ohio and Wisconsin at the behest of their incoming governors. The money will be transferred to other states to support “high speed rail projects already underway.”

California, Florida and Washington State come away as the big winners, receiving up to $624 million, $342 million and $161 million respectively. Those funds will help advance plans to connect San Francisco to San Diego, Tampa to Orlando and Portland to Seattle.

Each of the recipients were granted less money than they originally applied for in their HSR application, according to Justin Nisly, a spokesman for DOT. The additional funding will allow these states to further their plans.

“I am pleased that so many other states are enthusiastic about the additional support they are receiving to help bring America’s high-speed rail network to life,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement accompanying the announcement.

Even Wisconsin will receive $2 million to improve its Hiawatha Amtrak line from Chicago to Milwaukee.

Here is the way the money will be distributed in more detail:
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California to DC: Send Us Unwanted High-Speed Rail Money

Image: CAHSRA

Image: CAHSRA

In states where building high-speed rail is not politically toxic, elected leaders are scrambling to get a piece of the federal (essentially free) money Tea Party and Republican pols are unwilling to accept for rail projects. As soon as New Jersey governor Chris Christie killed the Access to the Region’s Core tunnel under the Hudson River, Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo told the Federal Transit Administration he would gladly take the $3 billion the feds had committed to the project.

When newly elected governors in Ohio and Wisconsin pulled the plug on their high-speed rail projects, the prospect of all that money being reassigned got more than a few politicians excited. The Associated Press reported both Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein yesterday informed US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood they would love more money for our High Speed Rail Project.

Now Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is piling on.

“It is with a certain sense of astonishment that we note recent announcements from some of our gubernatorial colleagues that they are uninterested in federal contributions to their high-speed rail systems,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement. “You are more than welcome to redirect that money to California – where we know how to use it to generate hundreds of thousands of jobs and provide a clean, fast and low-cost way to travel.”

Hopefully LaHood isn’t too concerned about the recent conflict of interest investigations casting a shadow on California High Speed Rail Authority boardmembers Curt Pringle and Richard Katz, the latter announcing his retirement from the board yesterday.

Read the rest of Schwarzenegger’s statement after the jump:

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Bay Area Won’t Likely Get First High Speed Rail Segment

Image: CAHSRA

Image: CAHSRA

The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) Board of Directors won’t make a decision on where to start building California’s first high-speed rail segment until December, but nearly everyone can see the writing on the wall.

Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Adminstrator Joe Szabo wrote [pdf] CAHSRA CEO Roelof van Ark on Wednesday to inform him that all of the $2.9 billion in federal money given to California’s project, including the $715 million awarded last week, must fund either of the two Central Valley segments between Fresno and Bakersfield.

The FRA’s letter comes in the middle of the comment period to formalize the segment selection criteria, with the federal government all but deciding the first segment ahead of a formal process. And despite the letter, van Ark said the CAHSRA was committed to objective criteria.

“The selection criteria should be neutral of the four segments,” said van Ark at the CAHSRA Board meeting in Sacramento yesterday. “The first step of the process, to select and build the first segment, is really that, it’s a first step. Building a high-speed rail line means means connecting metropolitan areas. We have to make a selection that will logically lead us to our final goal. The final goal remains building the complete system.”

van Ark suggested his board consider four general criteria for segment selection, with subsections :

  1. Provide expansion of the alignment to ensure an appropriate operational high-speed system
  2. Minimize construction risk
  3. Minimize schedule risk
  4. Build the most useful high-speed rail infrastructure for the least cost.

Despite these criteria, van Ark noted the obvious, that the state could lose the federal money if it doesn’t meet FRA requirements. “At this stage, going by the FRA letter, it would be the selection as together: the Merced-Fresno or the Merced-Bakersfield segment should be built first.”

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California High Speed Rail Central Valley Corridor Gets Federal Grant

Image: CAHSRA

Image: CAHSRA

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced $2.4 billion in grants for high speed and commuter rail projects around the country today, including $900 million for various portions of California’s rail network and High-Speed Rail project.

US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood compared the initial investment in high-speed rail networks across the country under the Obama Administration to the Interstate Highway system under President Eisenhower starting in the 1950s. The highway system, writes LaHood on his blog, “is the life-blood of American commerce and mobility.”

“Every vision this nation ever realized began with a few courageous steps,” LaHood continues. “If we put off high-speed rail by saying it will take too long to build, then it will never happen. Now it’s time for another bold step. The America I grew up in didn’t just happen. Our nation’s progress was only made possible through the imagination, investment, and hard work of those who came before. And I’m proud that, today, we’re adding to that legacy with President Obama’s commitment to high-speed rail.”

The federal money is being spread across various high-speed rail corridors from Florida to Illinois to Seattle. John Robert Smith, the CEO of national transit non-profit Reconnecting America, commended the Obama administration for the grants and also compared the initiative to the Interstate Highway system.

“A national high-speed rail system is not only an opportunity to redefine how we travel and how our regional economies grow, it represents the type of innovation and progress that can guarantee another century of growth and prosperity in America,” Smith said in a statement.  “It gives people a choice in how they travel, something polls have shown Americans want.”

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