May 23rd, 2011
Let’s Get Back on Track for High-Speed Rail

Samuel I. Schwartz, P.E.

Not too long ago it appeared that the United States was gaining steam in the pursuit of high-speed rail. We finally had a White House that made passenger rail a high priority. With Obama calling for $8 billion in 2012 and $53 billion over six years for passenger rail projects, and a goal to provide 80 percent of Americans with access to high-speed rail in the next 25 years, governors and the transportation industry were licking their chops.

And then we hit the skids. Florida Governor Rick Scott, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, all newly elected Republicans, abandoned high-speed passenger rail projects, rejecting a combined $3.6 billion in federal funds in the process. That figure is more than the gross domestic product of some small countries, like Fiji, Somalia or Guam.

And then Congress eliminated about $1 billion that Obama wanted in the current budget for rail projects, and $400 million from the $2.4 billion already set aside for high-speed rail in Florida.

It “makes no sense” Obama said, referring to the abandoned rail projects. He’s right. Transportation infrastructure projects help the country stay competitive. And they create jobs. The abandoned rail plans would have generated at least 35,000 jobs combined, according to news reports. That squandered opportunity was a bitter pill for some lawmakers in Florida, where the unemployment rate is 12 percent. The state had not even received bids on their project when the governor decided to turn down $2 billion in federal dollars earmarked for an 85-mile high-speed link between Tampa and Orlando. Among the disappointed were U.S. Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican and new chairman of the Congressional House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.  Another 26 state senators rebuked the governor for turning down the money, writing in a joint letter, “Politics should have no place in the future of Florida’s transportation.”

Gov. Scott’s decision, announced in February, was a slap in the face to the Obama Administration, coming a little more than a week after Vice President Joseph R. Biden unveiled the president’s rail plans. The Florida project was a centerpiece of those plans. It was one of two high-speed lines already approved by Congress. Like his fellow governors who rejected federal rail aid, Scott argued that his state might have been liable for billions of dollars, claiming that ridership estimates were too optimistic, and worried that taxpayers would be left with a  $3 billion tab to pay if the line wasn’t successful.

Scott’s pronouncement was described by Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, who, according to The Florida Times Union, compared the rail project to the interstate highway projects of the 1950s. “Can you imagine if the governor had tried to kill Eisenhower’s interstate highway system? That’s what we are facing today,” Nelson was quoted as saying in the newspaper. The senator raises a good point. Some of our nation’s greatest infrastructure was built in precarious financial times.  The United States Congress approved construction of the transcontinental railroad – one of America’s great technological achievements – during the American Civil War.

The governors who turned down the billions in high-speed rail may be making short political hay out of their decisions. Their states may feel the sting of jealously, as the funds they snubbed are funneled to other states eager to create jobs and build a world-class transportation network for the future.

In California, which received the largest portion of redirected money from the abandoned projects in Wisconsin and Ohio, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, at the time, was only too happy to take the funds. California voters have already approved almost $10 billion in bonds to build a high-speed rail system from San Francisco and Sacramento to San Diego. They’re going to need a lot more to meet the anticipated $45 billion price tag.

There were plenty of others vying for those $2 billion in abandoned Florida high-speed train dollars.  In fact there were 90 proposals from 24 states, the District of Columbia and Amtrak. “This is a knock-down drag-out fight over who is going to get it,” said Kevin Brubaker, Deputy Director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago. Among the eleven Republican governors seeking a slice of the pie was Gov. Walker of Wisconsin, who would have liked to get back $150 million of what he had initially rejected. “We’re glad that Gov. Walker has recognized the value of high-speed rail to the Midwest,” Brubaker said, “and is seeking funds to support it.”

Recently Ray LaHood, the federal transportation secretary, announced that Amtrak and 15 states will be awarded the $2 billion that Florida gave up. The biggest slice of that money, about $800 million, will be used to improve train speeds on the Northeast Corridor, as well as improve the reliability of commuter lines.

The New York projects may not sound sexy but they are the type of projects that need to be done to get us on the right track to high-speed rail, according to Darnell Grisby of Reconnecting America. “Part of the problem with American passenger rail is that a lot hasn’t been improved in many years and getting us to high speed requires getting us up to the speed of other countries,” he said. We need to improve existing rails so that they can handle high-speed trains.

The good news, Grisby says, is that about half the states that applied for the rail money are states governed by Republicans. “Opponents of high-speed rail may have been more successful about getting their message out, but it’s not entirely factual information. There is still demand for high-speed rail and it’s bipartisan in nature,” he said.

Why do we need high-speed rail? Because, Grisby says, with gas rising above $4 per gallon, Americans need more convenient travel options. High-speed rail will also relieve stress on our roads and airports. Small communities, like those in upstate NY, will benefit from rail lines that allow residents to commute to the big cities where the jobs are, without abandoning their hometowns. Those communities that know how to market themselves can leverage a new high-speed rail line into a big economic plus for the local economy. And let’s not forget about job creation. As Grisby points out, Brazil, Russia and Southeast Asia are building high-speed rail right now and if America can build a high-speed rail construction industry, we can export our products, creating long-term jobs.

The industry needs proof that that our nation has a long-term commitment to high-speed rail and the best way to do that is to include funds for it in the next transportation reauthorization bill. Congress really needs to step up.  Over the next four decades the U.S. can expect our population to grow by 100 million Americans. With our current transportation infrastructure, Grisby says, we cannot accommodate that growth.

Our nation needs to have a long-term strategy for our transportation network, a strategy that transcends politics. If not, we will pay for shortsightedness and veer off track while other countries speed ahead.

Samuel I. Schwartz is a former New York City Traffic Commissioner who currently writes the Gridlock Sam column for the New York Daily News and is CEO of Sam Schwartz Engineering.

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