While the debate over Altamont-Pacheco continues, have some more news from Washington DC on high speed rail:
- Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, is proposing to replenish the highway fund without hurting transit funding. In an amendment to the FAA reauthorization bill, Rockefeller wants to take $3.3 billion from the General Fund to address the shortfall in the highway fund. This is significant because Bush wants to raid the Mass Transit fund to cover that deficit. And there's a cherry for us HSR advocates:
In addition, the Rockefeller amendment authorizes issuing tax-credit bonds to promote high-speed-rail investment.
This would help encourage private investment in our own HSR system as it makes our bonds more attractive to buyers.
- Sticking with mid-Atlantic Senators, Delaware Democrat Tom Carper gave a very pro-rail speech on the Senate floor in support of Rockefeller's amendment. It's worth quoting at some length:
A strange thing is going on with respect to passenger rail ridership in this country.
I used to serve on the Amtrak board when I was Governor of Delaware, and every year we would see ridership go up by a couple of percentage points. We would struggle, try to raise money out of the fare box to pay for the system and the expansion of the system. Well, the first quarter of this fiscal year, ridership at Amtrak is up 15 percent. Revenues are up by 15 percent. People are starting to realize that maybe it makes sense to get out of our cars, trucks, and vans and take the train or take transit. Transit ridership is up again this fiscal year more dramatically than it has been in some time....
Americans are beginning to literally buy homes in places that are closer to opportunities for transit -- for rail, for bus, for subways, for the metro systems. As we have seen the drop in home prices across the country -- in some cases, very dramatic -- among the surprises, at least for me, is to see housing prices stable and in some cases actually going up in places where people can buy a home and live and get to work or wherever they need to go to shop without driving to get there....
I think in this country people are crying out for leadership. They are calling out for Presidential leadership, whether it is from our side of the aisle or the Republican side. People want leaders who are willing to stay out of step when everybody else is marching to the wrong tune, and I would suggest that the wrong tune is to suspend the Federal gasoline tax and at the same time not replace the dollars that would otherwise go into the transportation trust fund to fix our dilapidated, our decaying transportation system. Voters in this country deserve better leadership from us. I am determined, I am committed to making sure we provide and pay for that....
There other things we need to do too. We need to invest in rail service. We can send from Washington, DC, to Boston, MA, a ton of freight by rail on 1 gallon of diesel fuel. I will say that again. We could send from Washington, DC, to Boston, MA, a ton of freight by rail on 1 gallon of diesel fuel. But we as a government choose not to invest in freight rail and, frankly, to invest very modestly in passenger rail. It is a highly energy-efficient way to move people and goods.
It may seem like just one Senator giving a speech to C-SPAN's cameras, but it's significant to see traditionally timid and hesitant Democrats like Carper making such a strong embrace of rail. And they "get" the changing nature of American society - he described the phenomenon of collapsing suburban home prices and stable urban home values and how ridership is soaring on Amtrak lines. The more politicians that internalize and understand these facts, the less likely it will be that they'll try to promote obsolete 20th century transportation solutions.
Combined with Barack Obama's very strong high speed rail statements it seems like Washington DC is starting to understand the need to emphasize transit solutions. Of course, it doesn't hurt that backward-looking solutions, like Hillary's gas tax holiday, have been shown as political losers.