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Federal Transportation May Skid Off the Road

Proposals are under consideration to change the way transportation is funded nationally, and the consequences are not very promising for transportation, or, for that matter, the federal budget. The reforms put forward by Republicans Bud Schuster and Don Young, and enacted by a Republican Congress, a dozen years ago guaranteed transportation trust fund spending levels. The rules change proposed by the new House GOP leadership would allow the guaranteed level to be lowered by the Appropriations Committee, thereby essentially putting the Transportation Trust Fund budget–still funded mainly by transportation taxes–into the same pot as other general expenditures. It is a poor idea, but more important, it seems like a bootless enterprise, and a potentially time consuming one. It would cost Read More ›

A Fresh Look at the Prospects for Transportation in the New Congress

Last month we conducted an informal survey among colleagues in the transportation community about the outlook for the federal surface transportation program in the year(s) ahead. (“Prospects for Transportation Legislation and Other Infrastructure Ventures,” InnoBriefs, October 29). One comment from a veteran transportation insider summed up concisely the collective mindset: “There will be nothing ‘transformational’ about the future program,” he opined. As more details begin to emerge about the Republican strategy┬áin the next Congress, his observation is proving to be right on target. What follows is a fresh look at the prospects for the transportation program in the 112th Congress, based on new information — and in some cases, speculation — from congressional and other Washington-based sources.

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Cascadia Urges Northwest to Seek Unused Rail Funds

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Following the news that several governors-elect in the Midwest are indicating they will opt-out of high-speed rail funds from the federal government, Cascadia Center and advocacy group All Aboard Washington have urged Northwest leaders to act fast in case those funds might be reallocated to other corridors, such as the Cascadia Corridor. From a letter signed by Cascadia and All Aboard Washington and addressed to Governor Gregoire:

We are proud of the direct role you took in helping convince the Canadian government to continue to waive the inspection fee for the second Amtrak train to Vancouver, B.C. Your letter to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews that articulated the economic benefits to B.C. helped save the day.

We again need your advocacy for future high-speed rail (HSR) on the Amtrak Cascades corridor from Eugene, Ore. to Vancouver, B.C. We request that you share with U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo and Talgo executive Antonio Perez that Washington state has an interest in any reprogrammed HSR funding that might result from other states rejecting their funding allocated in the Recovery Act.
Our state’s excellent technical applications secured nearly $640 million in the first two rounds of funding, and we believe they should receive an equitable proportion of any redirected funding.

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Branson’s Virgin Group Steps Into U.S. Rail Arena

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Photo Source: Virgin Group

There are entrepreneurs. And then there is Richard Branson. Branson,
who waded into the U.S. transportation world with Virgin America
Airways (which just reported its first quarterly profit), appears ready
to try his hand at a less-proven transportation mode — at least for
the U.S., anyway. The Virgin Group founder has, according to The Wall
Street Journal
, “joined an all-European consortium that plans to bid
for Florida’s planned high-speed rail line.”

Virgin, which operates a rail franchise in the U.K., sees the market as
a natural extension of its existing U.S. transport activities, which
include Virgin Atlantic Airways–a big player in the Orlando airline
market–and Virgin America.

Whether or not Branson and others have a chance to bid on anything may still be up in the air. As
National Public Radio reports, “high-speed rail may be among the
casualties of last week’s midterm elections.”

The newly elected
governors of Ohio and Wisconsin have indicated they don’t want the
money allocated for high-speed rail to their states. In Florida,
according to The Wall Street Journal, the group Branson is joining for the bid “would be among eight potential bidders for the main portion of the
84-mile-long project.” The Florida project “could be the first such
project to move off the drawing board in the
wake of the Obama administration’s high-speed rail push, provided it
isn’t scuttled by the state’s new governor-elect, Republican Rick
Scott.”

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Prospects for Transportation Legislation and Other Infrastructure Ventures

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What are the prospects for surface transportation legislation in the 112th Congress? We explored this question informally in conversations on the sidelines of several recent meetings and conferences, by reviewing debates on the National Journal’s Transportation Blog and by soliciting observations from colleagues in the transportation community. This, let it be clear, was not a scientifically conducted survey but an attempt to reflect and distill the views of a group of informed transportation professionals and Washington insiders. All comments were solicited on an off-the-record and not-for-attribution basis. 

The responses came in two forms. Some respondents told us what they think should be in the legislation, other speculated what will be in the legislation. There was a wide disparity between the two views. What the transportation community wants to see in the bill differs widely from what it expects to see in the bill. Typical of the first view was a desire to see the Congress pass a multi-year surface transportation bill that ensures a strong federal role, “fundamental program reform,”  a long-term financial commitment and a substantial increase in funding. Unless Congress acts promptly and decisively, “deficiencies in our transportation system will seriously compromise both the near-term prospects for economic recovery and our long-term economic productivity,” wrote former Secretaries Samuel Skinner and Norman Mineta in the National Journal’s Transportation Experts blog. The outcome of the mid-term elections and the prospect of a divided government, they thought, should not mean additional delays and stop-gap measures.

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Seattle Tunnel Bids Fit Budget

WSDOT released a new SR 99 tunnel video on 10/29/10. Washington Governor Christine Gregoire announced today that two of the bids for the deep-bored tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct have come in “at or below the contract price limit,” according to a statement released by the governor’s office. “After 10 years of debate, 90 alternatives, and eight studies today we are returning the waterfront to the people of Seattle and keeping our economy moving,” said Gov. Chris Gregoire. “We can’t afford to wait. Replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct is a critical public safety project. The bored tunnel preserves capacity, is essential to our state’s commerce, and keeps traffic moving through the entire construction process. We owe it to Read More ›

Back on Track: Amtrak Service to Continue to Vancouver

Passenger rail advocates from Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver, B.C., are praising the news this afternoon that the Canadian federal government has agreed to pay the border fee costs needed to keep a second Amtrak Cascades train running between Seattle and Vancouver. Until late this afternoon, it appeared that the second train, originally started as a pilot program in conjunction with the Winter Olympics, would be canceled. As reported in The Vancouver Sun, “the Canada Border Service Agency…notified Amtrak it planned to begin charging the company $1,500 a day starting Nov. 1.” That wasn’t a fee that Amtrak was willing to pay. Time had been running out for one of the two daily trains connecting Vancouver and Seattle, as Washington state Read More ›

Looking Past the November Midterm Elections

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Ken-Orski-Headshot.pngThe long-term fate of the federal surface transportation program
continues to elicit much speculation amid expectations that Congress
(or at least the House) will change hands in November and make serious
attempts to trim government spending, while at the same time resisting
any large-scale tax increases. What would a federal transportation bill
enacted by a Republican-led 112th Congress look like (assuming, that
is, that the bill gets on the legislative agenda at all, i.e. in the
first 8-10 months of the new Congress, before it gets caught in the
2012 presidential election cycle)?  Chances are it would be far less
expansive than the bill proposed by Rep.James Oberstar and championed
by the transportation community. A Republican majority, elected on a
pledge to put an end to runaway spending and to shrink the size of
government (see the House Republicans’ “Pledge to America”), might well
decide to strip the legislation of prescriptive programs of
non-essential nature, focus on the highway “core program” and
investments of high national priority and let states assume
responsibility for discretionary programs that meet local political
objectives or are primarily of local benefit (and there are a lot of
those!). In sum, a Republican victory in November foreshadows major
changes in the scope of the federal-aid program. As one of our
colleagues put it, the program as we have known it over the years, will
simply cease to exist.

In a guest commentary, Richard G. Little, Director of the Keston
Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy at the
University of Southern California
, offers his own reflections on how
the reality of constrained resources and greater spending discipline in
the next Congress might affect our future transportation policy.

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Cascadia Continues Support for Second Train to Vancouver

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Photo Source: Amtrak Cascades

There has been a setback to the prospects of a permanent second daily Amtrak Cascades service to Vancouver, B.C. The Canadian federal government has made the decision not to waive permanently a border fee for the second train, requiring the Washington State Department of Transportation to pay almost $550,000 annually for border clearance services. Helping convince the Canadian federal government to waive the border fee — not just temporarily first through the Vancouver Winter Olympics and then until this fall — has been an important issue for Cascadia Center for several years. As a part of the coalition that has pushed for this expanded
service, Cascadia is disappointed with the decision.

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No One Said It Would Be Easy: America’s Bid for High-Speed Rail

An article that appeared today in The Wall Street Journal, “High-Speed Rail Stalls,” offers a candid assessment of the  challenges of delivering on the promise of high-speed rail (HSR) in the United States.  As the WSJ’s Jennifer Levitz reports, “Opposition from freight railroads is threatening the Obama administration’s multibillion-dollar push to make high-speed passenger trains an integral part of the U.S. transportation network. The standoff demonstrates the difficulties of introducing new passenger service to a rail network that is at least 90% owned by freight railroads and outfitted for slower trains.” Developing HSR has been a top transportation priority for President Obama. The Northwest’s Cascadia Corridor is one of several key corridors to have been awarded stimulus funds to accelerate Read More ›