Although this blog is primarily focused on Proposition 1A through November 4, we do need to pay attention to the federal government when necessary. We've had strong indications of support from leading national politicians on high speed rail over the course of the year. Once Prop 1A passes our focus will shift toward ensuring those strong indications become firm realities. In that light it's worth spending a moment to consider a John Kerry/Johnny Isakson funding concept that the two Senators are kicking around. Kerry is of course a Massachusetts Democrat, Isakson a Georgia Republican, but together they are sounding like strong HSR supporters, as demonstrated in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview of Isakson on HSR:
Kerry’s office wouldn’t answer questions about the measure, dubbed the High Speed Rail for America Act, but a letter he sent to colleagues talks big: “$200 million per year in grants, $8 billion in tax-exempt bonds, $10 billion in tax-credit bonds for high-speed intercity rail facilities, and $5.4 billion in tax-credit bonds for rail infrastructure.”
Kerry and Isakson are focusing on Birmingham, Alabama to Washington, DC but this concept can apply to our own HSR project, which after November will be the closest by far to reality. Senator Isakson shows a very astute understanding of the need not just for HSR but for government involvement in getting it off the ground:
Q: Why should government be involved in this at all? If it’s really worth doing, won’t market forces lead private enterprise to make it happen?
A: Sometimes you have to make the investment in the hub if you will, like aviation, or in the spine, like in the line from Boston to New York, to then make the rest of the system viable. And, again, I don’t think general taxpayer subsidies make sense in transportation … it’s a user investment in the system they are using in turn to make an income.
This formulation may be key in bringing Senate Republicans on board - government needs to "prime the pump" and build basic infrastructure to spur private enterprise. Isakson is talking in systemic terms here, understanding the value that an HSR spine - like SF to LA - provides for the entire passenger rail system.
Now I strongly disagree with his claim that taxpayer subsidies don't make sense in transportation - they most certainly do, for without them we wouldn't have a transportation system at all. Airports and freeways require continuous subsidies to maintain operations. But let's game this out for a moment. If Isakson is willing to support federal government funding for tracks...that's pretty much all we need them for anyway. HSR generates an operating surplus "above the rail" - meaning that subsidies are either not going to be necessary for ongoing operations or they'll be costs California can handle. If Isakson doesn't want the federal government to pay for ongoing CA HSR operations, but is willing to help pay for construction costs - which is how I read his statement - then that's a deal I might be willing to take.
Isakson also understands the economic value of HSR - especially during hard economic times like these:
Q: The U.S. economy hasn’t been in such bad shape for years. Is it a little strange to be talking such an ambitious project that would cost so much at this moment?
A: The economy’s struggling now in part because of the high cost of fuel, because of the high cost of commodities, and that rolls right back into the whole transportation issue. I mean if you can reduce your dependence on oil, then the demand goes down so the price goes down.
From your lips to other Republicans' ears, Johnny. He clearly understands the connection between HSR and economic recovery. Namely, the first leads to the second.
Logan Nash at Trains for America is reserving his judgment for now:
A high-speed rail initiative in this county would be great if executed well, but we don’t want any nascent project to siphon funds and support away from our already functioning Amtrak system....The way Isakson talks seems to point to a European-style system where a public entity owns the infrastructure, which private-ish operators then rent.
In other words, the role of private enterprise in HSR is going to be a key battleground for us after November 4. I'm on record as favoring a limited role for private enterprise and am strongly opposed to giving them a place in system operations. But if Isakson is willing to agree to federal assistance for track construction and then letting the states determine the role of private enterprise, well, that would be workable.
And of course all this demonstrates that federal support for HSR is quite strong - despite what the HSR deniers would have you believe.