Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic offered an in-depth look at John Kerry's HSR bill yesterday and it's a must-read. (Especially since I haven't had the time to go through it myself).
Some of the key parts of the bill:
If passed, the bill would create an “Office of High-Speed Passenger Rail” (we’ll call it OHSR here) which would operate within the Federal Railroad Administration. This would dramatically alter the priorities of the FRA, whose principal focus in recent years has been on improving the freight rail system in the United States. One wonders if FRA’s “safety” precautions, which require passenger rail trains in the United States to be far heavier than similar vehicles in the rest of the world, will be slowly phased out as the FRA’s mission is repositioned towards high-speed rail. Such a change, which would mean great monetary savings for rail operators around the nation in equipment purchases, might be necessary if a true HSR program is to be implemented.
That seems like a good move, giving HSR its own institutional position within the FRA (and the DOT itself) and as Yonah notes, this could also help finally change the FRA's outdated train weight rules.
This is the fundamental point: OHSR would not be the implementing agency, buiding the high-speed rail system. Rather, OHSR would simply distribute funds to other unnamed organizations (presumably mostly state governments, though Amtrak, which owns most of the Northeast Corridor, could also apply for funding). This means that Kerry’s bill, unlike the interstate highway system, does not establish a set group of priority corridors to finance. Rather, the bill necessitates that state and private actors work together to make HSR projects happen.
What this means is that under Kerry's vision there isn't going to be a national HSR plan, but that it will be left largely to the states to produce an HSR network with some federal support. That's a recognition of the status quo and likely of political reality - this approach lets more members of Congress believe that their states could get some of this money, whereas a top-down priority list might exclude more states at the outset.
In terms of money:
In a five-year period, the bill would authorize the following:
* $8 billion in tax-exempt bonds to qualified high-speed rail programs
* $10 billion in tax-credit bonds to “super high-speed” rail programs (we’ll get to this in a minute)
* $5.4 billion in tax-credit bonds to other high-speed rail prgrams
This would mean that the bill would produce a total of around $5 billion a year to be spent on high-speed rail infrastructure improvement. Most of that money would go to California in the initial years, which will need a lot of federal help to make its HSR program a reality.
As Yonah notes this would provide enough funding for our own project - IF the bill is renewed in 2014. That's a big if, given that we don't know what the political landscape will look like five or six years from now. Of course we'll likely be well into the construction phase by that point, and it's harder to kill a spending program once it's in place than to kill it at the proposal stage. States that have used the OHSR funds to start HSR projects will not look kindly on Congress or the White House refusing to renew their funding.
Still, I do wish that Kerry had been more ambitious with his numbers. Better to provide more money at the outset and then if you have to scale back the numbers in 2014 to please Republicans then you could still wind up authorizing exactly the same amount of money over 10 years that you've planned all along by having front-loaded it.
Overall this looks like it would meet our needs in California, though infrastructure stimulus would also be helpful. Kerry's bill would for the first time create funds for high speed rail and provide the kickstart that this country needs. We are going to need to ensure that we get a significant chunk of this money, especially since most of Kerry's cosponsors are from Northeast Corridor states.
Yonah offers some more commentary on the details of the bill, including how it defines "high speed" and "super high speed" rail, but I wanted to cut to the chase and discuss his conclusions about the bill:
The most important question, however, doesn’t relate to the amount of funding. Rather, we question whether the decentralized mode of planning represented by this bill makes sense. HSR is by definition an intercity service, and that would usually mean crossing state lines in the United States. If the planning is done on the state level, however, how can we ensure a cohesiveness to the system? How can we ensure similar levels of quality and network coverage? Unless the OHSR plays a significant role in planning, and in pushing state authorities in the national, united direction it wants, this will become an increasingly large problem as the rail system develops.
These are very good questions. Does it suit our national needs to have basically multiple HSR systems around the nation, with different standards and different technologies? Kerry seems to acknowledge that it's going to be some time before we have a truly national HSR system, and for our purposes in California perhaps that's OK, given our geographic isolation from the rest of the country. But it does suggest that Kerry is thinking modestly here, and not looking to offer the kind of broader rail revolution many have rightly called for in this country. Given the total lack of federal support for HSR in the past, even Kerry's proposal is welcome. Still, we shouldn't stop here and should continue to advocate for a much bigger and broader commitment on the federal level to passenger rail.