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UPDATE: MSNBC reports that both houses of Congress have now passed the conference version of the stimulus bill, it is now on its way to the President's desk. The Senate extended its voting hours to allow Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) to return from his mother's funeral. His was the deciding 60th vote since Sen. Kennedy (D-MA), who is battling brain cancer, was too frail to risk a second trip to Washington.
Republican support came from Sen. Collins (R-ME), Sen. Snowe (R-ME) and Sen. Specter (R-PA) who broke ranks rather than drown the global economy in a bathtub. Fortunately, the brouhaha surrounding the $8 billion for HSR did not change their minds. Check out Rachel Maddow's interview with Ray LaHood on this topic.
Still, it would be nice if the courts in Minnesota finally confirmed Al Franken (D) as the winner of that extremely close Senate race. At least the court case is now turning in his favor.
The ink is not yet dry on the compromise version of the stimulus bill that was hashed out in conference. The House and Senate still have to give their final approval before the President can sign it on Monday. As we discussed yesterday, this final version boosted Amtrak and HSR capital projects funding while cutting that for brand-new transit systems.
Yesterday, an Associated Press report on the conference result included a paragraph that has sent the blogosphere into a tizzy:
"In late-stage talks, Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pressed for $8 billion to construct high-speed rail lines, quadrupling the amount in the bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday.Predictably enough, the right wingnut faction of the Interwebs (e.g. Michelle Malkin) immediately decried this as a last-minute earmark. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't pay any attention to such partisan diatribes. However, the fate of the entire stimulus bill rests on the votes of just three Republican Senators. If any two of them were to get cold feet on Monday, using this fake controversy as an excuse, HSR funding could get cut just to save the rest of the bill.
Reid's office issued a statement noting that a proposed Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas rail might get a big chunk of the money."
Unfortunately, perception is reality, so we need to fix this misperception:
a) I was unable to find a copy of this alleged statement on Sen. Reid's official website. Perhaps it was just a verbal comment, but everyone else is simply referring to the wire service as their source.
b) The full text of the conference report on the bill contains the final passage related to High Speed Rail. Please refer to pp237 of the full text of Division A and p82 of the Joint Explanatory Statement for Division A.
The latter refers to HR 2095 (110th) as the basis of the High Speed Passenger Rail program. That bill was passed last November and included $1.5 billion for capital projects in corridors where passenger trains could reasonably be expected to reach speeds of at least 110mph (see Title V). It also specifically enumerated the eleven officially designated HSR corridors:
(click to expand image)
Evidently, Las Vegas to Southern California is currently not a designated corridor and therefore not eligible for any of the $8 billion reserved for HSR in the stimulus bill. However, existing laws give the Secretary of Transportation the authority to modify existing and designate new corridors.
c) Neither HR2095 (110th) nor the stimulus bill explicitly allocates HSR funding to any one corridor, whether designated or not. Instead, the bills spell out a process for DOT to make a decision based on competitive tenders. There is no earmark here.
d) The compromise version of the stimulus bill, formally "The American Recovery and Re-Investment Act of 2009", does raise the amount available for HSR projects to $8 billion, available through Sep 30, 2012. The generous timeframe reflects the fact that HSR is part of the re-investment aspect of the bill. It will have a stimulative effect right away in terms of planning, environmental reviews and preliminary engineering work. The California project involves the construction of brand-new tracks that will support true non-compliant bullet trains at speeds of up to 220mph. Certain other corridors, notably the NEC, may be able to break ground earlier if the officials responsible for them decide to make do with upgrades of existing alignments.
Nevertheless, it is quite incorrect to insinuate that any extra money for HSR was snuck into the bill at the last moment as part of some shady deal between Sen. Reid and Speaker Pelosi. Rather, the $8 billion figure came about as follows:
- $2 billion allocated to "Fixed Guideway Infrastructure" in the House version were targeted more narrowly at HSR in the Senate version.
- $2.5 billion at the discretion of the Secr. of Transportation was increased to $5.5 billion in the Senate version and targeted more narrowly at HSR in conference.
- $0.5 bilion was added for each of Amtrak and HSR in conference, but the amount allocated to brand-new transit systems was cut by a greater amount.
Ergo, the bulk of the increase for HSR between the Senate and conference versions of the bill is a result of Congress making a policy decision rather than giving the administration a lot of leeway, given that there was too little time to spell out a fair arbitration process between highway, aviation and rail spending. Some may disagree with the preference for HSR, but there's nothing sinister about the process that led to this result.
Conclusion: the statement allegedly issued by Sen. Reid's office reflects a political ambition rather than legal reality.
Personally, I think HSR from Las Vegas to Southern California is an idea worth pursuing in the context of a broader, national review of the designated HSR corridors. The last one occurred in 2002 and FRA's map is out of date. However, any actual award of federal funds from any bill should IMHO come with the following strings attached:
- Rather than create a brand-new one, Las Vegas should be added as a new destination within the existing California corridor. This would then be renamed e.g. the Cal-Nev corridor. In practice, that would boil down to operating steel wheels electric bullet trains instead of incompatible magnetic levitation technology. There is no need for any part of California to be served by more than one HSR system.
- The simplest option would be a spur to Las Vegas via Barstow, originating near the town of Mojave. There would be no stops between Palmdale (or Bakersfield) and Las Vegas.
A more complex alternative would be a line from LA Union Station to Las Vegas via Ontario airport and Cajon Pass, with a future spur to San Diego originating near Colton. In that case, it might make sense to modify the route from Bakersfield to Los Angeles to the I-5 corridor at Grapevine, bypassing Palmdale airport. However, that would require revisiting the geological and environmental reasons that led to a decision in favor of crossing the Garlock fault near Tehachapi.
- Since roughly 1/3 of all flights into McCurran airport in Las Vegas originate in cities with or near stations on the future California HSR system, plans for the new Ivanpah Valley relief airport near Primm on the California-Nevada border would have to be shelved. If any relief is needed, either Palmdale or Ontario airport can provide it.
- The investors behind the diesel-based DesertXpress project (the official website was down) should be invited to instead participate in a public-private partnership to build a cleaner and much faster electrified system. Parts of the environmental impact study already conducted may still be valid.
- If either state requires it, the environmental impact study for any HSR service to Las Vegas should include a feasibility study for also constructing a high-voltage DC power distribution line above or else next to the section between Barstow and the Nevada border. West of Barstow, it should run through Cajon Pass irrespective of the HSR alignment. This infrastructure would be electrically separate from the HSR catenaries except at designated feeder substations. Its purpose would be to transport CO2-neutral electricity (e.g. wind, solar, geothermal, hydro) to population centers in both states.
Bullet trains carrying passengers and/or high-value cargo to and from Las Vegas would relieve traffic on I-15, but any such project would face stiff opposition from anti-gambling advocates as well as Indian gaming interests in California.