Blog High-Speed Rail: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Designated High-Speed Rail Corridors Source: Federal Railroad Administration
High-Speed Rail: An Idea Whose Time Has Come
BY Ray Chambers, Cascadia Center
Washington, D.C.–As big campaign ideas cross the Potomac River and seep into the halls of power, all that is sometimes left is a faint memory — promises unkept (often unintentionally) that the political opposition can use in the next election. But sometimes, as is happening with the development of high-speed rail, the political stars align on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, making true progress possible.
The unfolding high-speed rail network looks like the real deal for several important reasons. First there is direct presidential involvement. The Interstate Highway Act of the 1950s was President Eisenhower’s personal initiative and his highest transportation priority. Similarly, the High-Speed Rail (HSR) Corridor program is President Obama’s personal initiative and his highest transportation priority. Never underestimate the momentum of a program personally sponsored by a president.
Second, there is strong bi-partisan support in Congress. In fact the single champion for building high-speed rail corridors by mixing a huge infusion of public finance with “European style” private partnerships and entrepreneurship is U.S. Congressman John Mica (R-Fla.), Ranking Republican on the U.S. House of Representative’s Transportation Committee. Committee Chair Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) is the leading across-the-board promoter of bringing true high-speed rail to America. Representatives Oberstar and Mica have formed an alliance. With leadership by President Obama, I believe HSR will dominate the transportation agenda for the next decade. Third, there are no real alternatives. With growing traffic and congestion, the capacity of the highway system cannot be reasonably expanded. Through a variety of measures such as positive train control and infrastructure projects, the capacity on America’s existing railroad grid can be expanded to an enormous degree. It will be expensive, but not compared to the alternative. In fact, there is no alternative.
Finally, the proof of the HSR pudding is to follow the money. I began to believe this last February when the U.S. House of Representatives provided no money for HSR and the U.S. Senate provided $2 billion in the stimulus package. The Conference made an unusual compromise to fund the program at $8 billion. That was the result of President Obama’s personal intervention in the House-Senate Conference. Then the Obama budget proposed that the HSR Corridor program receive another $1 billion a year for the next five years–upping the kitty to $13 billion, as well as establishing a National Infrastructure Bank. All of this has made me a believer in the HSR initiative.

The events last month prove the case even more.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee took the president’s request for an additional $1 billion for fiscal year 2010–and raised it to $4 billion. The “road gang,” led by my good friend U.S. Congressman Tom Latham (R-Iowa), moved to re-direct $3 billion of the $4 billion into the Highway Trust Fund (which runs out of money next month). Representative Latham was defeated on a 37-27 vote. He pressed his amendment again recently when the bill was on the floor of the House. This time he was defeated in a roll call vote of 192 yeas to 226 nays–a substantial margin.
On July 10, the states submitted their applications for intercity/high speed rail projects under the $8 billion stimulus appropriation. Forty states put in requests for $101 billion. Is this a ridiculous situation where demand outstrips resources leading to failure and disappointment? Not really. Most states projected their needs for about the next five or six years.
Follow the money.
If the House appropriation holds in Conference, $12 billion will have been appropriated by this October. The Oberstar-Mica authorization pledges a $50 billion HSR program over six years. If just those pledges come to pass, $62 billion will have been appropriated in the next transportation cycle (about 6 years)–in grant money. There is about $50 billion already authorized in innovative finance programs like the RRIF railroad loans and TIFIA infrastructure repayable finance. The National Infrastructure Bank proposed by President Obama is expected to leverage low cost repayable government finance through various grant subsides. This will be increased by private investors who will participate. We are now on the brink of a real intercity and high-speed rail program that in all likelihood will put $120 billion or more on the table over the next few years. Then, of course, the states will need to make their matching grants. All of a sudden, we’re talking about a real program.
For the West and Northwest, this all means we need to get serious about building our passenger corridors. The Cascadia Center in its new project “Beyond Oil — Transforming Transportation Though a Rebalance of Freight and People” will release a White Paper this fall examining best practices and proposing cutting edge corridors to serve as demonstration projects for the nation. You can be sure the Cascadia Corridor, which already has limited passenger traffic on freight lines, will be one of those “game changing” corridors. We will also identify true European style high-speed start-up corridors that we’ll recommend as demonstration projects.
Make no mistake. This is a bold initiative to build an intercity rail network in a most complex public and private environment. It is a move to create a new travel culture in America–not unlike that which can be experienced in Europe today. For me, this is in fact, the most exciting transportation initiative since the National Defense Highway Act of 1953.
Ray Chambers is a Senior Fellow in Transportation at the Seattle-based Cascadia Center of Discovery Institute. He has served as a political appointee in two presidential administrations and has extensive experience in transportation and government affairs at the federal level. He is based in Washington, D.C.