The latest news on the state and federal fronts is decidedly mixed. HSR is poised to make out like a bandit from the federal stimulus:
The most important news is the massive amount of money proposed for high-speed rail - $8 billion - and the large increase in Amtrak funding, up to $1.3 billion from $800 and $850 million in the respective House and Senate bills. This represents the largest single expenditure on rail in United States history and promises a new day for train travel. The U.S. Department of Transportation will lead the distribution of these funds; most of the money is likely to go to existing programs such as California High-Speed Rail, Midwest High-Speed Rail, and Southeast High-Speed Rail. States will get no supplementary money for rail programs, which implies that the bill’s writers want states to focus on implementing high-speed rail over standard-speed intercity rail.
I'm not going to argue with $8 billion for HSR - that's much more than the $2 billion I hoped would come from the stimulus. Still, I'm not quite comfortable with focusing on HSR at the expense of other intercity rail systems. The fact is that America needs more passenger rail period and needs a comprehensive program to implement them that includes high speed and non-high speed trains. Still, as The Transport Politic pointed out in the above quote, this is still the biggest amount the US has ever spent on passenger rail and should be considered a victory.
Less encouraging, however, is the doom about to face local public transit agencies, particularly those here in California. The final federal stimulus bill contains some transit grant funds, but zeroed out the proposed $2.5 billion for new starts. But the real catastrophe comes from Sacramento, where the proposed budget deal will eliminate state funding for local transit agencies in its entirety, a cut of $536 million that comes on top of nearly $3 billion in cuts that have been made since summer 2007. This is especially ironic given that the budget deal includes a 12 cent increase in the gas tax - but none of that will go to transit.
Many sustainable transportation advocates argue for a higher gas tax - but believe it should fund increased mass transit options. While schools and health care need more funding, that should come from other sources. Using the gas tax to do that is just not good policy.
Sure, this is an HSR blog, and perhaps we could be satisfied with the $8 billion coming to a high speed rail project near you. But as I have repeatedly insisted, HSR is just part of a bigger strategy to reshape American transportation. The big picture goal is to reduce our dependence on oil and sprawl. HSR is a good solution for the LA-SF corridor, but it won't help bring folks from Hollywood to Union Station, or from the Sunset District to the Transbay Terminal. HSR needs local transit to attain its highest ridership goals and to be the kind of success we know it can be.
The state budget deal is far from final, and Republicans may walk away from it once their wingnut base gets word of the tax increases. But the use of gas taxes for non-transit related funds, particularly when local transit is getting left in the desert with a canteen and a compass, is especially egregious.