Friday, July 24, 2009

House Approves $4 Billion for HSR

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

Congress is moving full steam ahead on HSR funding:

Yesterday, the House approved a $123.1 billion transportation and housing bill for fiscal-year 2010.

The measure would provide $4 billion for high-speed rail (HSR), $3 billion more than the Obama Administration had sought in the next fiscal year for HSR and intercity passenger rail. The bill also would appropriate $1.5 billion for Amtrak — in line with the national intercity passenger railroad’s current funding and the Administration’s request — and $150 million for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

The Senate has yet to begin addressing its version of the spending bill. The House and Senate eventually will have to reconcile any differences between their bills before a measure is presented to President Obama.

Not all of that $4 billion goes straight to HSR projects, as Reuters points out:

The spending bill passed by the House actually sets out $4 billion for high-speed rail, but Democratic officials expect to transfer half of that total to a national infrastructure bank that would give grants and make loans for large-scale transportation projects, another Obama priority.

All of this is a good start, but the big question - how to pay for a long-term project to build out a national high speed rail system - remains up in the air. Republicans are adamantly opposed to any new tax, and the Obama Administration is not exactly in a mood to go around raising lots of taxes (the health care tax increases will be a big enough battle).


luis d. said...

I'm telling you, Let's take the Subsidy OUT of roads and short haul flight's. Make Freeways into Tollways. Put the subsidy into HSR and other public transportation connected to it.

Once Their is sufficient transportation throughout the state coming out of HSR stations to the point that you can go Anywher without a car. Then people will NOT need a car. People will actually be forced to walk a little more and lose weight. I mean since Amercia is so Fat from being so lazy. Most would die without the convinience of their car and their McDonald's drive thru's. Cuz that's what is really holding us back from doing this.

Spokker said...

If mass transit is healthy why are half the people on the bus so huge?

luis d. said...

Not where I'm from their not huge. Your lucky if you see one here. At least most aren't, maybe we can catch up by opening burger shops at transfer centers.

Anonymous said...

Luis D. -

It's a little more complicated (and, ultimately, easier) than tolling roads.

Placing tolls requires building tolling stations and hiring personell, which means *more* investment in roads, which puts other things behind.

And the subsidy for roads comes from the difference between the revenue from gas taxes and the necessary outlays to maintain the roads, suggesting that the most straightforward way of bridging that gap is by raising the gas tax.

I'd vote 20 cents/gallon diesel ($8 billion) and 5 cents/gallon regular ($5 billion). That would pretty much cover most of the shortfall, and leave us with $13 billion to put towards other modes of transit (rail, subway, busses, etc).

Rafael said...

@ anon @ 1:55am -

diesel contains about 12% more energy by volume than gasoline. The state should not favor one one fuel over another, so the amount should be related to the energy content by mass. That's very nearly the same for both fuels.

Moreover, a disproportionate hike in diesel taxes would lead to an increase in general inflation. After all, virtually all ULSD fuel is used for trucking goods. A disproportionate hike would therefore give consumers no incentive to drive fewer miles per year and/or switch to cars with more fuel-efficient drivetrains.

It might make sense to go one further and commit to raising state taxes for on-road fuels several times over the coming years. In return, state sales tax would be reduced. That way, consumers can earn a net cut in their marginal taxes by making lifestyle changes related to transportation.

Anonymous said...


Where did you get that diesel has 12% more energy per volume as compared to gasoline.

I find that hard to believe -- gasoline is more highly refined. High octane gas get more mileage than low octane gas.

Into the final equation, of course, is how efficiently the energy is turned into mecanhical mileage.

I would like a referenced to that statement.

Peter said...

Anon: 2 minutes of Googling got me here:

Rafael said...

@ anon @ 6:50am -

it's just a matter of of density, i.e. mass per volume. Diesel contains molecules with longer carbon chains than gasoline does. Density varies a little with temperature and exact composition, but diesel typically comes in at ~0.84 kg/l vs. ~0.75 kg/l for gasoline.

The bulk of the exergy is actually in the hydrogen-carbon bonds, but the H-C ratio is roughly the same for both fuels so energy per unit mass is comparable. Unfortunately, mass flow is hard to measure so we buy these fuels by volume instead.

For reference, alcohols contain oxygen atoms which add mass but no exergy. That's why a kilogram of e.g. ethanol contains less energy than a kilogram of gasoline.

Conversely, a kilogram of pure methane gas contains a lot more, but it's hard to ignite (125-130 RON vs. 89-98 for gasoline) because there are no weak carbon-carbon bonds for the oxygen to attack during combustion.

Anonymous said...

Rafael -

It's not about energy density, it's about taxing the more damaging users of highways (i.e., semis) at a higher rate in order to better pay for the maintenance costs that they cause.

Doing the math, the trip from Boston to LA (about 3000 miles, approx 5mpg), it ends up being $120 per truckload across the country. Not a massive economic dislocation.

I'm open to the argument concerning diesel machines for agricultural use being unfairly hit by this, but, otherwise, meh.

Rafael said...

@ anon @ 2:00pm -

several European countries have introduced road pricing mechanisms for commercial vehicles precisely because road surface wear and tear is proportional to the fourth power of axle load.

Another issue is that a number of countries at the geographic heart of the EU host high volumes of through traffic. Commercial vehicles have a large operating radius, they would simply drive through any country that tried to impose much higher fuel taxes than its neighbors, depriving that member state of the revenue needed to properly maintain the roads.

In the US context, California would find it difficult to collect enough incremental revenue if it tried to raise its diesel taxes well beyond those of Nevada and Arizona. What you're proposing could work if fuel taxes were raised at the federal level and the proceeds used to not just build but also maintain federally funded highways. I'm just not holding my breath.

Short of a road pricing mechanism for commercial vehicles in California, there is therefore limited scope for unilateral state-level tax hikes on diesel fuel even if somehow, magically, voters summon the political will to impose them. That's part of why I think gasoline taxes would need to go up by more than the $0.05 per gallon you suggest.

Anonymous said...


Well, I was talking about federal fuel taxes. Although I could've been clearer, I've never before had to clarify when discussing the matter.

TomW said...

Because of the differences between diesel and gas (petrol) engines, one gallon of diesel will get your further than one gallon of petrol, and emit CO2 at a lower rate to boot. That is a very good reason why fuel tax shodul favour diesel over petrol, regardelss of vehicle type.

Alon Levy said...

TomW, diesel actually emits more CO2 per unit of volume than gasoline, offsetting the higher fuel economy it offers.