While Robert is out of town (Congratulations to you and your fiancee!), it's an honor to help fill the big shoes he leaves behind for the time being. I represent the National Association of Railroad Passengers, the only national, membership-based organization that works for better intercity passenger train service in the country.
As consumer advocates representing the traveling public, we understand the tremendous benefits that HSR will provide to Californians. The Executive Committee of our Board of Directors formally endorsed the project last week. As a Los Angeles native, I grew up to become painfully aware of the differences between the California we have now, and the greener, more dynamic California we will have once HSR is up and running. I greatly look forward to working in the coming months with state rail advocacy groups such as RailPAC, our allies with environmental and other public interest concerns, student organizers, and other citizen proponents of Proposition 1.
From Washington, DC, the outlook for intercity passenger trains in general is brighter than it has been for a long time. The bipartisan, blue-ribbon National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission submitted its report to Congress this year to provide a framework to reauthorize surface transportation programs for the next five years.
What's significant is that the report recommends that the Congress allocate $9 billion annually in dedicated funding for passenger rail, currently the only mode of surface transportation that does not have a dedicated funding source. (Until this year, states like California could not leverage a federal match for its investments in new trains or tracks. We now have a $30 million federal pilot program for the current fiscal year. It's paltry, but it's a start.)
Amtrak and passenger rail programs received $1.362 billion in the current year, against an estimated need of $1.8 billion just to keep pace (and after years of even worse starvation diets). As the appropriations process moves forward for 2009, we may see a slight increase, but until we get the kind of federal commitment called for by the NSTPRC, it's just tinkering around the edges.
NSTPRC also provided a framework of ten major programs around which Congress should base future investments. The only one that was mode-specific is Intercity Passenger Rail, reflecting the short shrift that trains have gotten in a distorted market over the past several decades (examples of other programs include Metropolitan Mobility, Federal Lands, and Research & Development).
Proposition 1 will be a major shot of adrenaline to HSR in America, giving Congress greater policy and political incentives to heed the Commission report and emboldening other states to follow California's lead. As California-style innovation goes, so goes the nation. NARP's resolution notes, "California's initiative in high-speed rail will likely be replicated elsewhere in our country, placing California, once again, in a transportation leadership role."
As for the private sector, we are seeing more examples every day of investors coming to understand HSR operations as a good risk. Italy, notoriously stereotyped for its bureaucracies, will see its first private HSR service in 2011:
The new rail operator, NTV, is a $1.4 billion project that will link Rome, Milan, Turin, Venice, Florence, Bologna, Naples, as well as Bari and Salerno in the south, officials said. It will make a total of 54 journeys a day.
The service, which will run on Italy's existing rail network, will use 25 11-car AGV trains by French engineering company Alstom SA, which will be delivered in three years.
Alstom said NTV will be the first operator worldwide to use its AGV very high-speed train. The trains will be equipped with specially designed seats, Internet connections and on-demand TV, traveling at a cruising speed of around 190 mph on existing Italian high-speed rails, the company said.
California may end up looking to Italy as a model, one in which passengers will enjoy a range of options for fast, safe travel along publicly-owned, well-maintained trackage.
But none of that can happen here until we have the kind of glistening, new infrastructure that only the public sector can provide, to unleash the potential of public-private partnerships.
There's no question that the federal government can end modal discrimination and make it a national priority to assist states like California that want to end their dependence on oil-based mobility, enliven their economies, and improve their environment and quality of life. But it takes political commitment, and we and our members will do everything in our power to make it happen. But we'll need your help on the grassroots level, too.
Prop 1 will be a great start, but not the end of the heavy lifting. Stay tuned.